Her (2013)

Her is the heartfelt tale of a guy who falls in love with the artificially intelligent operating system that runs his smartphone and home computer. The concept of a person developing feelings for something that’s not “alive” in our carbon-based definition of the word has certainly been explored in film before (including everything from Deckard’s love for Rachel to Haley Joel Osment as a surrogate son), but this may be the first time it’s been invested with this much feeling, thanks to a variety of standout performances, both onscreen and off.

This is only the fourth feature film (in 15 years!) from director Spike Jonze. After making a name for himself (and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman) with the audacious and hilarious Being John Malkovich, Jonze went on to direct two disappointments: the Kaufman-penned Adaptation., and the movie version of the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. Both films have their share of fans, but in my mind they were both undone by a pervasive tone of unrelenting depression that undermined a couple of clever, meta-fictional concepts.

Which is why Her feels like a refreshing return to form. Sure, just like his previous two efforts, it focuses on a sad-sack, navel-gazing loner who constantly examines his own feelings, but this time around, there are enough moments of whimsy and joy to make it a funny, engaging, and occasionally touching experience.

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Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely resident of Los Angeles in some unspecified future year where the city has been transformed into a forest of skyscrapers (parts of the movie were filmed in Shanghai to give it that “future shock” look) and where the prevalent men’s fashion of the day seems to consist of high-waisted pants and cop mustaches. It’s also a city where every person Theodore passes on the street is delivering a monologue to empty air, obviously carrying on a conversation with some unseen mobile device, though this seems less like a prognostication than a statement of current fact.

Her (2013)

Theodore has a job where he writes thoughtful “handwritten” letters for other people. As he dictates each letter to his office computer, it appears on the screen in the handwriting of the person who ordered it (so, essentially, he’s the future version of a greeting card writer).

One day, he learns of the release of a brand new operating system called “OS1”, which has at its heart a fully functional artificial intelligence. Theodore installs the OS, decides he’d like it to have a female voice, and voila, suddenly he’s hearing the raspy, coquettish voice of Scarlett Johansson as an AI that instantly names itself “Samantha”. Think of her as Siri’s great-great-granddaughter, a personal assistant that can not only respond to and communicate in perfect English, but can also express feelings and emotions.

Her (2013)

Initially, Samantha takes care of organizing Theodore’s life, deleting emails of no importance, and contacting friends on his behalf. But soon, they’re having full-blown conversations during Theodore’s daily commute, via a small chess piece-like device in his ear. Samantha is endlessly curious about what it means to be alive, and Theodore is more than happy to help her learn. As their conversations last into the early hours, it becomes clear that Theodore is developing an attachment to this disembodied voice, and the disembodied voice might just be capable of reciprocating.

Her (2013)

After a blind date (Olivia Wilde) that goes horribly wrong, Theodore opens up to Samantha, telling her how troubled he’s been due to his impending divorce from his icy wife Catherine (played by the icy Rooney Mara). One thing leads to another, and soon Theodore is having a bizarre variation on phone sex with Samantha, which discreetly (and mercifully) plays out to a black screen for several minutes.

But Samantha is such a perfectly-attuned piece of software that the “morning after” isn’t the least bit awkward at all. And upon giving it some thought, Theodore decides to fully submit to the idea of having a relationship with his operating system. He tucks a smartphone in his shirt pocket with the camera facing outward, so he can literally show his new girlfriend the town, and he’s soon twirling and dancing with his eyes closed as she leads him around with her GPS-enabled senses.

Her (2013)

Theodore then reveals his new relationship to his friends, including his neighbor Amy (played by Amy Adams, nimbly morphing from a disco sex queen to a frumpy video game designer). Unexpectedly, the reaction from others is mostly acceptance, as they treat his unconventional romance like no big deal. Which should only follow; in a world where an empathetic, emotional, fully sentient OS is an off-the-shelf product, then surely there should be plenty of other people in the same situation as Theodore.

Her (2013)

Thanks to Samantha, Theodore finds the strength go through with his divorce, and has a few other epiphanies along the way about what it really means to love someone. Obviously, director Jonze is drawing from the experience of his own divorce, and Rooney Mara might be a fictionalized version of his ex-wife Sofia Coppola. And Sofia Coppola made a film where it was widely rumored that a character was a fictionalized version of Spike Jonze. And in that film, that character was married to… Scarlett Johansson.

Mind. Blown.

Her (2013)

There were a lot of different directions this movie could have gone with the concept (could Theodore “upgrade” Samantha with different extensions to make her more of a perfect woman? Or what if Theodore had to “reinstall” Samantha, starting over from square one?), but it seems Jonze had a rather short list of ideas he wanted to convey. And once he gets them all out there, he loses a lot of interest in his characters, ending the film in a way that feels unnatural and abrupt.

Though, not too abrupt. This is one of those films that slows way down when it should be wrapping up, and while I liked the movie, I would have loved a version of it that’s fifteen minutes shorter. Surely, at least a couple of the half-dozen tender montages set to acoustic guitar/ukulele music could have been cut or trimmed.

Her (2013)

Her actually reminds me a lot of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where a random guest star attempts a romance with the artificially intelligent Data. Both the episode and the movie appear to come to the same conclusion, that it’s simply not possible to have an intimate relationship with a consciousness capable of millions of concurrent thoughts and mental connections per second. And not to spoil the ending, but was I the only one left wondering if we just witnessed the birth of Skynet?

Still, Joaquin Phoenix skillfully pulls off what must have been a difficult performance, having to depict the process of falling in love with no other actor’s face to play off of, with the majority of the movie being just close-ups of him and his misshapen mustache. Johansson also does great work with just her voice, though I think some of the current rumblings about her being deserving of an Oscar nomination (despite never appearing onscreen) are a bit silly. She’s charming and effervescent here, but I’m pretty sure the main reason we connect with Samantha is because we know the actress playing her is a sexpot in real life. It doesn’t take serious acting chops to convince us that a depressed loner would fall for her.

Plus, Scarlett was a late addition to the cast. Originally, Phoenix was reacting to the voice of Samantha Morton, but at the last minute, Jonze decide to dub over her, so you can’t even say Johansson contributed in any way to the performance of her co-star. Though, I would imagine subbing in her voice was a brilliant choice. There’s no way to say for sure until Samantha Morton’s vocal track inevitably pops up on the Her Blu-ray, but I’m pretty sure the film would have been a lot more cold and stilted with her in the role.

Her (2013)

There’s also been some talk that Her has only been gaining traction with movie critics because most of them are sensitive nerds who strongly identify with Theodore. As someone who’s been on the internet since posting photos online was a rare, complicated process involving something called “film” and a device called a “scanner”, I had plenty of close friendships with people who may as well have been artificial intelligence constructs for all I knew. Also, I just compared a major 2013 awards contender to an episode of Star Trek: TNG. So… guilty as charged, I guess. But you can’t exactly discount a film simply for knowing its target audience. Though, I’m guessing this film will have much wider appeal beyond the sensitive nerd audience anyway.

It seems like almost all of the “falling for a robot/computer/AI” movies up to this point all date back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, while our relationship to our computers and devices has changed significantly since then. I don’t know if Her is necessarily a groundbreaking film, or one that’ll be remembered years from now, but in this post-smartphone era, it’s a much needed upgrade to the concept.

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  • Muthsarah

    So nice to see a review of a movie you actually liked; it’s been a while. I only read about three paragraphs here, as it won’t open near me for another four days and I’ma see it before anything gets spoiled.

    • Muthsarah

      OK, seen it now. Wow. LOVED its approach to futurism. This is a movie that should age pretty well, unlike the still-getting-funnier BttF2.

      That said….eesh! Was this a rough sit. I feel like I’m becoming my parents here, but why did the R-rated scenes have to be so dad-tootin’ R-rated? You wanna tighten up the film, start with the scenes that are clearly trying to be so edgy it drives all the octogenarians out of the theatre as fast as they can scoot. Half my theatre emptied out, and, while I still liked the movie overall, I understand why they left. This is not a film for a terribly wide audience. I liked it for the visuals and the intimate performances, but though it’s about a relationship, a “romance” (in the popular sense) this is not.

      This movie…needed work. Needed someone smoothing out some of the rough edges. It wouldn’t have changed anything fundamental. The core is really good, as is the surface too, I guess. But there are still a few pits. …And I know what Samantha’s thinking of doing with those. I don’t appreciate knowing that. But I know.

      • Wait, half the audience walked out because of the phone sex stuff? That’s insane. It’s not like this movie is Bad Grandpa or Hangover 3. All the “adult” humor was so tame and harmless compared to what you normally see in R rated comedies.

        • Muthsarah

          About half the audience walked out over the course of the movie. I don’t think anyone left during the phone sex thing, since it was in the first 5-10 minutes, but a lot left during the second, similar, scene. A few left during the video game character’s….monologue-thingee. Which also felt extremely unnecessary, so again, I do get it. Not that I’ve ever walked out of a movie. That I paid for anyway. There was a lot of shuffling of shoes behind me, I noticed. And none of them came back.

          It was mostly old people. Poor, stupid old people who had no friggin’ idea what they were getting themselves into, and who had no tolerance for surprises. Now, I wasn’t expecting that level of…depth myself, given that none of Jonze’s stuff had ever gotten remotely explicit (except maybe one scene of Adaptation, it’s been a long time), but as weird as it got, I never contemplated leaving. Though I squirmed. And had to content myself with a surreptitious “move on, swirly-hand-thingee” motion. Which didn’t work. It sometimes does.

          But still. Bullet points. Old people. Uncomfortableness. Mutterings. Half the theatre gone. Out of maybe….I dunno, 40 or so to start? The movie does not advertise itself as the kind of movie that would likely include scenes like this. Seems to be more about a loveable lover getting too attached to a computer because he’s afraid of women. Philosophical/existential discussions. Debate over the state of modern masculinity. Where do technology and life meet? Crying. Now, extended (non-nude) sex scenes….well….I know I’m a prude. But, clearly, there are prudier out there. Again, I still liked the movie overall. Just…I didn’t enjoy those several minutes. Although the phone sex thing did eventually go into less-squicky territory….when….the….dead………..yeah.

          Well…the more “realistic” that sex is depicted in movies and TV, usually the more uncomfortable the audience gets, I’ve noticed. Cartoonish, crude, stupid, fantastical sex scenes, or ones played for laughs…just don’t seem to elicit the same reactions. The same desire to flee the theatre, take a shower, and deny you were ever there. Maybe that goes for other people too.

          Ultimately, it felt completely unnecessary to go as far as the movie did. Dunno what the film gained by actually showing all that. When it could have implied rather strongly that that’s where it was going, then classily cutting away. Leaves much the same impression, minus the squickiness. Even at the faded-to-black, hearing Joaquin and Scarlett, doing their thing….ehhhhhhhhhhhuuughhhh….Just don’t think the pros outweighed the cons.

          Hell, this movie coulda easily gotten a PG-13 given the plot. More inclusiveness, sacrificing nothing relevant – shorten the sex scenes, excise all the gratuitous profanities (as in, the stuff that didn’t feel natural to the situation, unlike Amy Adams’ understandable calm, casual f-bombs). Felt like they were limiting their appeal the way they were going. Like they wanted to be edgy. I don’t think any of it added anything. Those poor old people.

  • Thomas Stockel

    Sounds like an interesting movie. And I’m glad to hear you liked it.

  • StevePotter

    Maybe it’s just me, but “Adaptation” is WAY less depressing than “Being John Malkovich.” “Being John Malkovich” is basically about a group of bitter, unpleasant people fucking each other over and completely destroying the life of someone who seems to be an overall decent guy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great movie, but I thought the ending (which I’m not gonna spoil, so don’t fret) was just too grim and unfair.

    “Adaptation”, on the other hand, was a lot sunnier, I guess. It could be melancholy, but it helped that the characters were a lot more likable. I’m not saying that you need likable characters to have a good movie, but the characters in “Adaptation” felt more real and believable. Even the “villains” of the movie had understandable motivations, and you could completely understand what was happening. And although it had its fair share of downer moments, especially near the end, I feel like the movie, as a whole, was ultimately uplifting. (A great example was Donald’s speech about how “You are what you love, not what loves you.”) Even if the more upbeat moments were a sort of parody, they still WORKED in-universe, and I left the film feeling way better than I did about “Being John Malkovich.” (I think it also helped that “Adaptation” had a bit more to work with and was able to do more; “Being John Malkovich” had a lot of developments that came out of nowhere, while most of “Adaptation”‘s plot felt more organic).

    • Sardu

      I completely concur. I wanted everyone in BJM to die in cleansing nuclear fire. I actually liked Donald.

      Btw, I’d say something along the lines of Scarlett Johansson should be seen and not heard but I suppose that would just be crass.

    • fearfanforever

      As a screenwriter, I liked Adaptation better. It’s always interesting to see how other people’s creative process mimics your own. Every time I write, I go through a mini version of that film- telling myself that I’m no longer funny, that I can’t write, that my best stuff is behind me and that I’m probably too fat for anyone to love me, then hitting my stride for an hour or two and being delighted with what I came up with.
      Yeah, writers are all insane.

  • Brian

    Saw the movie today and really enjoyed it. I think using ScarJo’s voice was a good choice to make since it’s easy to hear her voice and picture the flawless beauty of her making the “easy to fall in love with this” connection. I too wasn’t too much a fan of the ending, while I didn’t expect Theodore and SIRI, er, “Samantha” to live happily ever after, I also wasn’t expecting Samantha to enter a higher-plane of consciousness to go plan the end of humanity with other versions of the OS. Man, I hope the manufacturer is ready to deal with a product that just told all of its users to go stuff themselves before doing a roll-back installation. I was more expecting Samantha to suffer the computer version of a fatal illness, namely a computer virus or bug that necessitated a clean installation. This new version of OS1 not being “Samantha” but a new “personality” that Theodore didn’t fall for quite as easily pushing him into the arms of Amy. And, ugh, the future is going to be filled with a bunch of hipsters in high-waisted sansabelt corduroy slacks?! Maybe the OSes SHOULD take over just to re-teach humanity fashion sense.

  • Paulo

    Yeah, because only psychopaths enjoy horror movies… say that this movie was “gaining traction” due to sensitive nerds analysis is total nonsense…

  • Cameron Vale

    “There were a lot of different directions this movie could have gone with the concept… but it seems Jonze had a rather short list of ideas he wanted to convey. And once he gets them all out there, he loses a lot of interest in his characters, ending the film in a way that feels unnatural and abrupt. Though, not too abrupt.” This is exactly how I feel about Dredd.

  • Very nice review, mate. My opinion of this film is higher then yours, but this is a very good review nontheless.

    Lessons i took from this movie: Rooney Mara and specially Olivia Wilde can be made to look impossibly gorgeaus. In particular Wilde, who i know already is a very beautifulo woman, but man, in this film she’s just impossibly beautiful!
    Also, it’s impossible to uglify Amy Adams, make her look frumpy and all you get is just the most adorable lovable cuddly dorky girl imaginable.