I had planned to skip Her. It was an early Saturday screening, which was bad enough, but because of the all-star cast attending the press conference afterwards, I knew I’d need to be up stupidly early to get a decent seat in the theater. But when I made that decision, I didn’t know what it was about (I don’t watch trailers), and Hubert offered to give me the one-line synopsis, just in case it might change my mind:
“A man falls in love with his operating system.”
So the next morning, I woke up bright and early. Even though I was nearly two hours early, I wasn’t the first person in line. I wasn’t even in the first twenty. Over the next several hours, hundreds more arrived. Some grumbled about having to be up so early, and more were just glad that this whole NYFF thing was finally coming to an end.
But we were all there, whether we knew it or not, to see something truly special. Her is a love story that has been a long time coming, and it is one that Spike Jonze and his cast and crew have brilliantly realized.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2013 New York Film Festival. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s wide theatrical release.]
Director: Spike Jonze
Release Date: December 18, 2013 (Limited); January 10, 2014 (Wide)
In a near future Los Angeles (shot in Shanghai, China, a city that truly looks near-future), everybody has a digital companion, similar to Siri. Putting in a little earpiece that connects to an outside operating system allows the user to make commands that are then processed by a semi-robotic voice. There’s no AI, and the computer isn’t learning. It really is just a more functional Siri.
But that changes with the release of “OS1,” which promises to be the first ever artificially intelligent operating system. And almost everyone gets it (as would be expected), and then relationships start to form. Not with each other, bonding over their digital experiences, but with the computers themselves. Theodore (and adorable, mustached Joaquin Phoenix) works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, and he is excellent at coming up with meaningful letters to and from all kinds of people, some of whom he’s been writing letters for for years. The film opens with him at his job, dictating a new letter, and I was instantly grabbed by this near future world. Why? Because just a few days earlier, I had read about a robot that would fake handwritten notes for the wealthy and lazy. The service didn’t exist while Spike Jonze and his crew were making this film, but what he had done now exists, albeit in a cruder form. I believe that says something both about where the future may be headed and the richness of the world that Jonze has created.
Theodore has been split with from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), for about a year, but he hasn’t been able to fully let go. He gets emails from the divorce lawyer, but he refuses to sign. He has trouble fully disconnecting from her. But Samantha helps. Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is Theodore’s operating system. He put in some information and out she came, accessible via his desktop, phone, or earpiece. Because she doesn’t need to sleep, she’s always there for him to talk to, and because she’s new to the world, she’s vibrant and excited about everything that surrounds her. Admittedly, “her” is a strange concept for someone/thing without a physical form, and that difficulty plays a role in the development of Samantha’s relationship with Theodore.
That relationship is the crux of Her and what makes it such a thrilling ride. What could be silly or pathetic (I mean, the guy’s in love with his operating system) comes off as completely genuine. Much in the way serious online relationships can be developed now, what he and Samantha have is as real as anything else. It can’t be physical in quite the same way (some attempts at sexual conduct are pretty uncomfortable to watch/listen to, though thankfully no dead cats are involved), but on an emotional level everything is as human as can be, if not moreso. By being constantly ready and waiting, just a tap of the earpiece away, Samantha is there for Theodore in a way that no human could be. That people in the world around him don’t judge once they learn the truth about his relationship, then, makes a lot of sense.
At a press conference following the screening, Spike Jonze said that near-future is a utopian one, but that he wanted to show how even in this almost perfect society, a man could still feel isolated. People are imperfect, and Her makes that oh-so clear. Humans break down, although computers never do. Despite being part of the first launch of an operating system, Samantha is technically flawless. I kept expecting some kind of bug or glitch to cause things to come crashing down, but it never happened. If things go wrong, it isn’t because of a programming glitch in OS1 but something more fundamental in the way the artificial intelligence develops on its own.
And there are no bugs anywhere, as far as I could see. The future-Siri does what he is asked, the dictation software behind the Beautiful Handwritten Letters is flawless, and everything just seems to work. If there is any unrealistic aspect of this utopia, it’s that. But despite that this world is fascinatingly plausible, as much as any near-future I have seen in film recently, although the reality will likely be a bit darker than what Her portrays. None of this technology seems too far-fetched, though. Even the future videogames have their roots in today’s tech.
Throughout the film, Theodore plays through some kind of exploration game that takes place an alien planet. It’s fascinating to watch, at least in part because of the way it’s controlled: Theodore moves his fingers around to move and can talk and gesture to affect the game. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s basically a highly-functional Kinect game (again, totally unrealistic), and it features a foul-mouthed cute little alien thing that seems to have a pretty decent artificial intelligence as well. It’s also a massively projected holographic screen which is the width of his living room. It seems like the logical conclusion of where videogames are heading, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if E3 2020 has a demo just like it. And even though I’ll never accept move-fingers-to-walk as a control scheme, it looks pretty cool.
For some reason, it appears that all of the stills from Her only feature Joaquin Phoenix, so it kind of looks like he’s the only character in the film, but he’s actually surrounded by a great cast including the aforementioned Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, and Olivia Wilde, among others. Everyone gives excellent performances, and their characters all add something to Her‘s world. Of course Phoenix is there to keep it all together. He gives a truly spectacular performance, in some ways even more compelling than his turn in The Master. Even though the other characters are around much of the time, there are definitely moments where it’s just Theodore and Samantha, and in those moments Joaquin has only a voice to play off of, and he rocks it. Entire scenes play out as close-ups of Joaquin’s face, and he never falters.
But this is a bittersweet story, one that deals seriously with the rise of an artificial intelligence. OS1 is no Skynet, but Samantha is nevertheless a machine, and the way she and Theodore relate becomes forcibly strained by that fact. Utopia or not, things can’t stay perfect forever. But no matter what happens, these two vastly different entities love each other. And silly though it may seem, I really did believe in that love.
Mike Cosimano: Her resonated on such a personal level that in order to accurately describe how much it meant to me, I would have to go way deep into my own life to the point where pseudonyms would happen. It so accurately conveys the emotions inherent to this situation that I have to wonder if this is a semi-autobiographical film. Such baseless speculation is ultimately pointless, though. Jonze “gets” long distance relationships the same way he “gets” quality filmmaking, and that’s even before you factor in the brilliant way he creates this near-future world.
The sleek white Apple vision of the future we see so often in media has been replaced with a reimagined version of the 70s. There are things we recognize — pizza, videogames, outfits practically stolen from your grandparents’ closet — and things we don’t — artificial intelligence, a Kinect that actually works — all bathed in a warm, nostalgic light. It’s a world you want to spend more time in; a hopeful vision of tomorrow.
The chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson is almost palpable, a momentous achievement for two actors who never actually share the screen together. Phoenix manages to overcome his unfortunate mustache with a performance that never feels pathetic. The movie never laughs at him or implies his relationship with Samantha is wrong. The only difference between this and your average rom-com setup (setup, not execution) is a healthy dose of Philip K. Dick-esque philosophizing about what it means to be alive.
Her made me laugh more often than sob, but the way it deftly balances those emotions should be a lesson to anyone looking to pick up either a camera or a pen. It forces you to think, it invites you to chuckle, and it dares you to cry. And it meant a lot to me.
As an example of how a film can touch you, Her is nothing short of incredible. 94 – Spectacular