Review by: Bill Graham
Are we ever ready for love? That’s the question that director Spike Jonze seems to be pondering in his solo screenwriting debut, HER. Rich and full of heart, this is a journey that grows exponentially the longer you think about it. Upon each subsequent viewing, you uncover subtle nuances and yet it remains fresh even after the fourth watch. This is a film I am excited to share and talk about, and there just simply aren’t that many films these days that reward repeat viewings while also giving you something to discuss afterwards.
Here we follow Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is going through a divorce and is a bit out of sorts. He loves his job, which has him using software to create handwritten letters from the point of view of someone else. He has to infer a lot, and often creates love letters out of thin air. This places him as a talented reader of people. Later in the film, he even comments how he likes to observe people in real life and try to figure out their stories: who they are, why they’re there, and more. But sometimes it’s precisely these kinds of people that struggle to figure out real connections and the life around them.
At this point we are introduced to Samantha, the self-named hyper intelligent operating system that has a personality of its own and is the latest development of consumer software. Operating systems in the world of “Her“ are ubiquitous with nearly everyone connected to one via a removable earpiece for a majority of the day. While most of the conversations and interactions are a bit stiff and robotic, with the ability to dictate emails, choose music on the fly, and hear the latest news read, the OS that Samantha represents is completely different. Samantha is curious, vivacious, and constantly growing. The way it grows by leaps and bounds is partly because of how fast it is, reading a book in less than the blink of an eye, while also never being tired or having to sleep. Samantha grows and grows, giving Theodore an outlet to talk with. Samantha is excited every day and that excitement is infectious, allowing Theodore to grow out of his self-imposed shell.
Voicing Samantha is Scarlett Johansson, an actress that has grown by leaps and bounds herself in terms of skill and ability. We never see Johansson’s form on screen, and that provides her the ability to blend into the role. In fact, the way she has to voice emotions, love, and more is fascinating audibly but also visually, as we see Phoenix interact with someone that isn’t there. Samantha Morton, originally cast in the role of Samantha, performed on set so Phoenix had someone to work against but she was eventually replaced during editing. I imagine her input and work to that point was invaluable in shaping the finished product as much of Phoenix’s scenes were likely not reshot. This factor means it’s tough to judge how much Johansson had an impact, but her voice acting alone is one of the best parts of HER regardless of when she came on board.
However, I’d like to focus specifically on Phoenix who is the real treat, to me. He has to voice the character but also is the surrogate for both of their visual emotions. Often he is talking to Samantha without her seeing him, so we are able to catch glimpses of his uninhibited reactions to the conversations. His frustrations, his surprise, and everything in between are often expressed in extremes. This also means that instead of sharing the screen visually with someone, we are rarely focused on anyone but him when he interacts with Samantha. I imagine this had to be a daunting task but equally exciting. The film rests largely on the shoulders of Phoenix and Johansson, and it’s their chemistry that sells the film.
While I’ve droned ON about the two main characters, I haven’t given you the glimpse of the lives and people around Theodore and Samantha. Lest I forget to mention the wounded Amy played by Amy Adams, who goes from being a whirlwind character in most of her films to being a subtle everyday girl next door. She plays one of Theodore’s best friends and often seems to be the shelter Theodore needs from the sometimes destructive women around him. As much as the performances of the trio elevate the film, it’s the heart of the story that I find equally fascinating. To eventually fall for a machine has been something humans have pondered for generations. HER touches me personally in many ways, and one thing that I’ve often heard is that best friends make the best soul mates and that’s exactly where Samantha and Theodore start. But over time, feelings and emotions get involved. You nearly stumble into love as if it is some magical trapdoor you weren’t aware was around the corner. It’s not how things were intended to go, but before you know it you’re there and it’s ever so complex. That’s the beauty of the relationship in HER and yet Jonze is able to go further with this idea of robot love.
Films about the not too distant future are often hard to pull off without things feeling odd or out of place. Thankfully, Jonze avoids those pitfalls by making the creative decision to stylize the clothing and the world. While HER is set and shot in Los Angeles, portions were also shot in Shanghai as well, giving the world of the film a futuristic and abstract twist. There are also a slew of touches that become more and more obvious upon repeat viewings, including a lack of denim clothing replaced with high-waisted pants and inside out collars. Additionally, the way Samantha and Theodore interact is also intriguing, particularly when Samantha wants to push the boundaries and use a surrogate lover. The interaction is complicated and I continue to think about how that relationship works. It’s beautiful and wrong at the same time and tests morals in new ways when you consider what defines a monogamous relationship. Additionally, there are philosophical questions that arise in HER that will leave you just as devastated as the characters on screen.
Our relationship with technology is constantly changing. We use it to communicate, but increasingly we’ve seen these devices and things as part of our personality and lives. They are not judgmental. They don’t have their own personality. They are subservient. But there are products out there that push those boundaries, even today. Some are old. You can see it in a Furby and you can find it in computer games. I recently came across a radio program that challenged listeners to say that a Furby wasn’t alive. It could express emotions like fear and happiness. It learned. It grew. Yes, it was simple minded compared to humans, but just because it wasn’t as intelligent as us doesn’t necessarily mean it is any less alive. Are bacteria alive? Certainly, they are. But do they have complex social lives or emotions? What about ants or bees, who often seem single-minded in their drive? This program’s subject argued that while, yes, a Furby was simply a complicated product of wires and electronics, which in fact that is what our brain is in a sense as well. Emotions and things of that nature are relayed via electrical current in the brain. We are wired to have little limitations, but we still have them just the same. These are complicated challenges, and “Her” dares to be a love story that defies convention while being infinitely applicable to our current reality. This is about connections, whether it’s with a computer or a human being, and there are few things that bring as much joy.