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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.