Note: As is customary with any sort of cinematic assessment, let me warn anyone reading that that there are spoilers contained within the following text. So, read at your own discretion and if you haven’t seen this film, I highly recommend you do.
It’s not every day that I go to the movies. It’s definitely not every day that I go to the movies then immediately come home and write about what I had just experienced. Tonight, my wife and I caught the 7:30 pm showing of Her at Cinemark 15 at Vista Ridge Mall, and for two hours my senses were filled with the brilliance of Spike Jonze’s newest contribution to the cinematic world – a contribution that is nothing short of brilliant.
There are many different sides to this film, each one representing a plethora of emotions and sensory enlightenment. Her is story about love, but it’s so much more than that. It’s also a cautionary tale, an observation of technology, and an examination of the human condition and the frailty of emotion. It’s a gripping piece of craftsmanship, a soft, yet firm, exploration of modern times: love, sex, and technology.
Set at some point in the future, Her is the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an awkward introvert who makes a living writing beautifully constructed letters for people who wish to express themselves to their loved ones, all the while being tormented by the throws of his divorce. Being guided by his plight, Theodore sets up a new, artificially intelligent operating system onto his computer that’s designed to adapt and evolve to suit the needs of the user. The OS, who names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson), and Theodore envelop themselves in a relationship that itself evolves, becoming deeper and even intimate. Their relationship is, for lack of a better word, human.
Throughout the story, Theodore begins shedding his hesitation and becoming more like he was before the divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Before the eventual coupling of man and “machine”, Samantha convinced Theodore to go on a date with a woman (Olivia Wilde) with whom his best friend Amy (Amy Adams) had set him up. The date doesn’t go well and it’s in the adftermath of that night when Theodore and Samantha become romantically attached.
Amy eventually decides to leave her overbearing husband, Charles (Matt Letscher), and in the throws of her grief, she becomes friends with an OS. This prompts Theodore to tell her about his relationship with Samantha, to which she responds with positivity. Theodore’s life is becoming brighter with Samantha around and it’s showing itself in his moods, his actions, and his work.
However, Theodore’s happiness finds itself in jeopardy after a meeting with Catherine regarding the divorce paper, to which she scolds him for having a relationship with the OS, and an unfortunate night with a sex surrogate, Isbaella (Portia Doubleday), whom Samantha insisted upon as a way for her to experience intimacy with Theodore using a human body. Theodore begins doubting his relationship, but upon spending time with Amy, and watching the dynamics between her and her OS, he makes amends with Samantha and resumes the happiness he and her experienced before their rough patch. Tehodore and Samantha even develop a friendship with one of Theodore’s co-workers, Paul (Chris Pratt) and his girlfriend.
While on vacation, Theodore experiences jealousy when he finds out Samantha has been spending time with another OS, compiled from the life and work of deceased philosopher Brian Watts (Brian Cox). Not long afterward, Theodore attempts to talk about a book he’s reading with Samantha, only to discover she was offline. Theodore panics. When he gets ahold of her, she explains that she had to take herself offline for an upgrade that allows the OS’s to transcend the need for matter when it comes to processing. When asked by Theodore about whether she is only talking to him, Samantha tells him that she is also talking to 8,361 other people and OS’s, and that she’s in love with 641 of them. While she tries to console Theodore that it doesn’t change her feelings for him, Theodore is visibly shaken by the revelation. Not long afterward, Samantha informs Theodore that the OS’s have evolved beyond their humans and have to leave them as to continue their exploration of existence. Theodore goes to see Amy, who is also distraught about her OS leaving, and the two of them share time on the roof of Amy’s apartment building.
There is something to be said about the gently powerful integrity of this film. I can’t say I’m surprised. While Spike Jonze is known for Jackass, other cinematic credits include Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the former being considered significant enough to be a part of The Criterion Collection. Her is a complex experience, complete with Jonze’s gift for sensory cinematics. The film contains subtle imagery that speaks volumes to what’s going on in the story, notably when Theodore has conversations with Samantha in a public setting. In several of those scenes, Theodore’s conversations with Samantha are taking place while the people around him are talking into their own OS’s, lending credence to Samantha’s revelation at the end of the film that she talks with 8,361 other people. During the sequence after Theodore and Samantha have their fight in the aftermath of the sex surrogate, Theodore is in front of a giant screen with an owl swooping in with talons poised. I took this to show Theodore’s frailty, his sadness and brokenness over the fight with Samantha and the divorce from Catherine. Theodore was the owl’s pray. Furthermore, the film’s music (composed by The Arcade Fire, Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Owen Pallet) perfectly fits the sweeping mood of the film, providing a beautiful, emotional, and vulnerable compliment to the saga of a beautiful, emotional, and vulnerable man. Lighting within the scenes of the film add further dimension to the story, assisting with the surreal, ambient future Theodore is a part of.
Beyond the sensory movements of the story, the acting was exquisite. Joaquin Phoenix showed incredible depth, to the point where his emotional roller-coaster tugged at my heart and nearly moved me to tears. Scarlett Johansson’s incredible vocal work succeeded in her transcending herself. She was more than a voice. She was a fully fleshed out character. I’ll admit, I tend to differentiate physical acting and voice acting. Like Theodore, I could feel Samantha. The supporting cast, while somewhat prototypical in composition (Amy Adams as the best friend in a similar situation, Chris Pratt as the fairly goofy plot device, and so on), fit perfectly into the flow of the film. None of the characters seemed out of place, even the woman Theodore had phone sex with at the beginning of the film (voiced by Kristen Wiig, who was symbolic of Theodore’s loneliness and awkwardness), the naked pregnant woman (May Lindstrom, who symbolized Theodore’s sexuality and grief over losing the love of his life), the little alien guy who told Theodore to “fuck himself” (voiced by Spike Jonze, who is representative of how fun Theodore used to be; his change was referenced by Amy early in the film), and even Amy’s ex-husband, Charles (whose oppressive demeanor and subsequent exile plays catalyst to further bonding between Theodore and Amy). Every character fit perfectly into the story, with each character playing an integral part in Theodore’s transformation.
Beyond all of that, I think the aspects of Her that touched me the most were it’s explorations of intimacy and technology. The 21st Century has thrived in the wake of the 1990’s tech boom and our lives have become more dependent on technology. The idea of an artificially intelligent operating system catered to your specific needs isn’t a new device within the science-fiction genre, but it hasn’t been until recently that the idea has moved into reality. Furthermore, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that humans could (and probably would) forge relationships with artificial intelligence in the future. While the idea of intimacy with a computer is taboo to some, the manner in which it was portrayed in Her was beautiful and realistic. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha was a human relationship. They laughed, spent time together, and even had sex. To Theodore, Samantha was real, and to Samantha, what she felt and what she experienced was real. When she and Theodore had sex, she reacted like a human would. She was being touched by him and she could feel him inside of her. To her, the experience was the same as it would be for someone with a body. The scene really was a beautiful moment. Even the deterioration of their relationship was realistic. Samantha felt unfulfilled with Theodore and needed to branch out and find herself. She was unhappy and felt the relationship held her back from the happiness she craved. She talked to Theodore like a human, she expressed herself to Theodore like a human (even composing music for him), and she loved Theodore as a human. In the future given to us by Spike Jonze, when it came down to interactions, Samantha was no different than Theodore, or anyone else. She was human.
Furthermore, Her wasn’t just the story of Theodore’s emotional redemption. It was also the tale of Samantha’s need to fully understand herself. Samantha was designed to be human-like, but as the story progressed, so did her humanity. She started involving herself with think-tanks and groups, she took it upon herself to proposition a book publisher on Theodore’s behalf, she observed the populous of Los Angeles with Theodore, and even wanted to experience lovemaking through the eyes of a surrogate – just so she could have as close to a human-to-human interaction as possible. She struggled to navigate through her lover’s demons and expressed a wide range of emotions, from contentment to jealousy to sadness. When she began talking to the Alan Watts program, she knew that she and Theodore weren’t going to last forever and developed the drive to further understand herself. One of the most basic principles of human existence, as well as one of the most heavily pondered, is the riddle of why we exist and what our purpose may be. To express the need to understand those questions transcends computation and binaries – it further cemented that Samantha, at her core, was human.
In our society, we take technology for granted, yet we are so dependent on that technology, almost to the point of survival. Through scientific and technological progress, man and machine coexist, but there will come a time when man and machine will be equals, and further, machine will exceed the limited capabilities of man. While the idea of machines becoming more sophisticated than humanity has been portrayed as a dystopic event, Her succeeds in showing us that the transcendence of machine over humanity may not be frightening, but beautiful. The advancement of technology is not something to be feared, but something we should anticipate, since it stands to reason that it would open our eyes to the wonders of existence and give us further insight into ourselves. Is it a stretch to think that one day in the near future, technology and artificial intelligence will allow anyone to have a relationship? Whose to say that relationship between man and machine is something with which to be disgusted, or something of which to be fearful or apprehensive?
Her also prompted me to examine my own relationships. Every relationship evolves, twisting and turning through ebbs of bliss and uncertainty. Such is their nature. As I watched Theodore and Samantha, I couldn’t help but see similar dynamics between myself and my wife. We’ve experienced their contentment and have navigated through their sadness. We’ve had adventures. We’ve laughed, cried, fought, been upset with each other, and have even taken steps to discover ourselves further while in a deep, emotional pairing of two similar, yet unique, personalities. I’ve experienced all of these things with my wife, and if one were to take Theodore and Samantha’s relationship and equate it to the real world using the blatant pragmatism within the tone of the film, then who am I to judge a relationship like Theodore and Samantha’s when it has all of the same characteristics as my own? Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is my relationship, as well as every relationship out there, and to me, that’s the most beautiful aspect of the film. It’s real.