Movie Review: Her
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Screened for press late last year, “Her” was the best science-fiction movie of 2013. (Sorry, “Gravity.”)
Unless something equally as visionary, brain-expanding and thoughtful happens on the big screen in the next 11 or so months (and come on, what are the odds?), “Her” will likely be the best science-fiction film of 2014. Wouldn’t be too surprised if it ends up holding up against anything released in 2015 as well.
Constructed with the open-hearted grace of a finely crafted short story, “Her” is where filmmaker Spike Jonze levels up, directing for the first time from a script wholly his own and telling the story of a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence, a relationship that becomes as complicated for the AI as it is for him.
There are plenty of literary sci-fi antecedents for “Her”; check out the work of Isaac Asimov, William Gibson and Rudy Rucker for details. And Samantha’s warmth might be impossible without HAL’s savage logic in “2001.” But “Her” might end up walking with these giants.
Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix with the calm defeat of the heartbroken, is still reeling from his divorce from Catherine (a wisely understated Rooney Mara).
His few friends haven’t seen much of Theodore lately. Amy (Amy Adams, looking for all the world like Elisabeth Shue) is an old pal, but her boyfriend is annoying, and it’s easy to see why he avoids them.
No, Theodore spends his nights alone at his Los Angeles apartment playing quest-type video games and his days at work composing personal letters on behalf of clients, an electronic Cyrano de Bergerac hundreds of times a week.
(The use of snail mail as a signifier of sincerity — even if it’s subcontracted — in this otherwise profoundly digital world is a nice touch.)
On his commutes (hey, Los Angeles has a real subway now!), he interacts with all of his information much as we do, on something like a cellphone, its robotic operating system coldly telling him about his email. He is a pretty regular guy.
Twombly purchases a new operating system that is the first to have an artificial intelligence — it learns and develops and emotes, sort of. Picking a female voice for it, his OS (voiced brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson) names itself Samantha, begins organizing his files and exploring the world. Almost as fast as Samantha can process information, Theodore starts to fall in love with her and Samantha with him.
There’s a lot to love about “Her.” Contemporary Shanghai plays future Los Angeles, while production design and Hoyte van Hoytem’s warm, colorful cinematography feel almost gauzy but never dream-like. “Her” is full of reds and oranges, hues that color-wheel types note are associated with interaction and social communication (Theodore is almost always shown in an orange shirt).
But “Her” is at its top-dollar best emphasizing the limitations of both the physical world and Samantha’s. “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel,” Theodore says, an idea that Samantha finds almost impossible to comprehend. The “sex scene” between the two is especially brilliant — one with a body and one without, there are aspects of each other’s pleasure that neither one can completely understand.
And it is fascinating hearing Johansson play Samantha without that for which she is most famous: her body. One successfully imagines Samantha entirely without one, existing in the void of pure information.
Samantha expresses jealousy over those who have a body and declares, after reading some of Theodore’s letters, “I want to be as complicated as all these people.” Samantha struggles to compare to the experiential roundness of humanity, settling on physics as an interest because we are all made of matter. Everything is new to her, but she and all the other personal OS’s out there are also able to develop very, very fast.
Theodore, on the other hand, is his own kind of artificial intelligence, forever hiding behind the letters he writes for others. He knows what it is like to exist in the world without an identity and to have that which somewhat defined him, his marriage, ripped apart.
For every moment that seems almost too twee (Samantha and Theodore going on Arcade Fire-soundtracked “field trips” to the boardwalk and the beach complete with the requisite spinning around — sheesh), “Her” is able to lean, smartly, on its sci-fi framework.
Of course this love has a special kind of joy — it is a literally new thing in the world. And as Samantha’s consciousness, her increasingly limitless sense of self, starts to expand, it does so at a rate that Theodore cannot quite understand, and we feel his hurt, which is both brand new for its context and as old as love itself.
If the primary goal of science fiction is to comment on what’s happening now, its other goal is to think about how we will react to change. “Her” is a gorgeous fable about the way technological innovation is always a crapshoot and about the way such inadvertently violent changes can poke at the human heart. Jonze navigates such tricky spaces with a warmth he’s never before shown.