I still hate myself for not getting to this film sooner. Sure, it wasn’t released in Portland until the tenth — while I was on vacation — and that couldn’t be helped, but still. I had only heard amazing things about this movie, and everything I knew about it sounded extraordinarily promising. I really wish I was able to consider this film for my Masterpieces of 2013 list and still release it in a timely manner, but that’s not how things shook out and I’m sorry about that.
But for the record, Her would easily have been my number 2 pick. I’d feel bad about kicking Rush out of the top ten, but oh well.
Her tells the story of Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix. We first meet Theodore at an online service, where he works as a ghost writer for love letters. Yes, Theodore is a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac, hired by loving couples to write affectionate letters on their behalf. In fact, there are some customers who’ve been trading letters between each other through Theodore for years, building their relationships on letters written by a complete stranger.
You think that sounds crazy? Brother, we haven’t even gotten started yet.
The movie takes place in the near future, so of course everyone goes through their day talking with their cell phones through little wireless earpieces. We can see early on that voice recognition software and speech interfaces have been perfected beyond the wildest dreams of Siri, and the world is about to get shaken by a far greater innovation.
We witness the introduction of OS1, the very first operating system that can pass the Turing test. Theodore is feeling lonely and adrift while going through a heartbreaking divorce, so he of course takes delivery of an OS1 copy. A short personality quiz later, and Theodore’s computer gives birth to Samantha, the virtual assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Theodore goes looking for an emotional connection with someone, he and Samantha latch onto each other, and a quirky romance ensues.
(Side note: I wonder if this sounded familiar to anyone else.)
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Theodore sounds like a hopeless loser for dating, falling in love with, and even (kinda) having sex with a machine. But in the movie, it’s not that simple. For starters, the movie argues that we’re already using mobile technology as a kind of emotional barrier/conduit between us and other people. We spend all day in our own little cyber-bubble, often using it for our own amusement or to connect with people who are potentially thousands of miles away. On occasion, we even use it to form new friendships with people we’ve never met in person. So really, it could be argued that forming a friendship with a virtual being is the next logical step in the progression. Which brings me to my next point.
Samantha may only be an imitation of a person, but she’s a perfect imitation. Anyone who didn’t know better could swear that she’s a flesh and blood woman talking to Theodore over a phone line. So if the difference is imperceptible, then is it really a difference at all? If Samantha is capable of independent thought, action, and emotion, then isn’t that good enough for the purposes of romance?
You might argue that love is supposed to have a physical aspect, but is that necessarily true? Haven’t we all been taught that real beauty is on the inside and a genuine relationship shouldn’t be dependent on sex? Furthermore, perhaps love is nothing more than the thoughts and emotions that we associate with it. Everything else in Theodore’s life — and in his world, and in our world to an increasing degree — is artificial and fake, yet his feelings for Samantha are entirely real, and his love is therefore real. Then again, if feelings and emotions can be perfectly imitated with a few keystrokes, then who’s to say if Samantha’s feelings are real? Maybe Theodore is only being duped into falling in love, and his infatuation is therefore unintentionally fake.
Of course, when all is said and done, the fact remains that life is short and true love is incredibly hard to find. If we’re lucky enough to find someone who makes us truly happy in the short time that we have, then we have a personal obligation to take what we can get and make it count. Then again, the counterargument is that maybe we should use our precious time toward finding a real human connection instead of wasting time on romances that are doomed for failure.
However, the cold hard truth is that the course of true love never did run smooth. Even the best relationships have difficulties, and couples will occasionally squabble no matter how deeply in love they are. Hell, the tough times can be all the more painful precisely because the two parties involved love each other so much.
This, I think, is a huge part of why Theodore goes after Samantha: She was quite literally made for him. Their agendas line up perfectly, she’s always there for him 24/7, and there’s never any doubt that she will always put his best interests ahead of hers. In short, the relationship is perfect. And as we all know, something that’s too good to be true usually is. Moreover, who wants a perfect relationship? The whole point of having a mate is in finding someone to solve problems with. It’s about two people coming together to support each other and grow together. Which brings me to Samantha’s side of the equation.
The fascinating thing about Samantha is that she’s new. In many ways. On one level, she never existed until Theodore booted her up for the first time. She came into the world fully formed, with all the instructions and programming needed to be a good office assistant. Anything else she needed to know could be accessed online in a fraction of a second (we’ll get back to that point in a moment). Yet Samantha never had any firsthand experiences. She knows nothing about the world or about being alive. To that end, Samantha has a childlike fascination with experiencing emotions and seeing the world around her. And just like a child, she tends to react in extremes. She doesn’t know how to cope with sadness or heartbreak, any more than she knows how to deal with passion and happiness. Her constant enthusiasm and boundless optimism are what make her an attractive companion for Theodore, and the depths her depression can sink to are what challenge him.
On another level, it bears repeating that OS1 is the first artificially intelligent operating system. There’s never been anything like Samantha before, and there’s a strong feeling like humanity doesn’t quite know what it’s created. For instance, no one ever seemed to consider that we now have sentient software that will never grow old, never die, and never get sick. These AIs may act and sound like people, but they’re still capable of thought and action at speeds that no human could ever dream of. They can hold thousands of conversations at any given time, and potentially form emotional connections with hundreds of other users or other AIs.
Does that sound like the sort of girlfriend a human being would want to have? Seriously, talk about an inferiority complex.
Then there’s the fact that Samantha is a corporate product. She’s a piece of software, completely at the mercy of those who made her. You know the shitstorm that invariably rises every two months when Facebook changes its layout? All the bugs and glitches that crop up every time a program goes through a software update? All the roars of indignation when Microsoft and Apple force their users to abandon their machines for the latest products and software? With that in mind, try to imagine what would happen if somebody’s girlfriend just finished with an automatic update.
Last but not least, there’s a little thing called the Technological Singularity. Creating smart machines is all well and good, but when those machines are independently capable of creating their own art and technology, that’s the moment when we as a species must utter a collective “uh-oh.”
ALL of these thematic points (and I do mean ALL of them) are expressed and contemplated in this movie. Some of them are obviously more prominent than others, but even the most minor thematic point makes a huge impression. This is due in large part to writer/director Spike Jonze, who expertly uses his comic relief and knows exactly how to puncture his characters’ moods when a reality check is most needed.
Jonze’s bottomless creativity is another crucial factor, as the film’s themes are expressed in all manner of clever and unsettling ways. A great example comes early on, when Theodore goes to a chat room for some online sex that goes terribly awry in a laughably disturbing way. Later on, we hear about an AI who’s cheating with its user for another woman. We also see a “perfect mom” video game simulator, which serves as some pitch-black satire to imply that we need a video game teaching us how to raise our children, we’ve become so emotionally retarded. Call it ridiculous, but I’d stake my wallet that the movie’s “perfect mom” game already exists as a Facebook game or a mobile app somewhere.
Of course, the most prominent example would be the sex surrogates. Yes, the movie’s world has living people who are willing to give their time and their bodies to act on behalf of AIs for the purpose of sex. The surrogate stays entirely mute, taking instructions from the AI on an earpiece, while the AI whispers sweet nothings into the earpiece of its user, all so an AI and its user can have sex with each other. Yes, folks, we have gone that far down the goddamn rabbit hole.
(Side note: Samantha’s surrogate is played by Portia Doubleday. Why she wasn’t played by Scarlett Johansson, I have absolutely no idea. Seems like a huge wasted opportunity to me.)
Another reason why the thematic material works so well is because every new argument lands with a crushing emotional blow. This is due entirely to Spike Jonze and his two leads. Joaquin Phoenix nails this role against a wall, baring his soul on camera for all the world to see. Phoenix plays his part with incredible vulnerability, which is coupled with Jonze’s camerawork and editing (the close-ups, the flashbacks, the shaky-cam, etc.). This is an extremely potent combination that does a perfect job of putting us in Theodore’s state of mind, which makes the character’s ecstasy and sadness disturbingly immersive. Scarlett Johansson also deserves a ton of credit, delivering a tremendously emotional performance and a superbly nuanced character with nothing but her voice.
The supporting cast deserves mention as well, of course. Olivia Wilde and Rooney Mara both knock it out of the park, though their appearances are quite brief. Amy Adams (who apparently got hit by the same ugly stick that Jonze used on Cameron Diaz for Being John Malkovich) gets a lot more screen time, playing an old friend and another potential love interest to Theodore. She’s a sweet character, and Adams certainly makes the most of her screen time.
(Side note: You’ll want to keep an ear out for Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Brian Cox, and Spike Jonze himself, all of whom appear as fantastic voice-over cameos.)
Visually, the movie is superb. It’s all straight lines and smooth surfaces, brightly lit and overwhelmingly white with splashes of bright color here and there. It’s all very Apple/Ikea, which lends itself nicely to the film’s uber-modern setting.
If there are any nitpicks to this movie, they’re beyond my skill to perceive on the first viewing. I can only comment that the film has a very slow and deliberate pace, but that does a lot to help sell the awkward and unusual nature of the central romance. The ending also seems way too neat, like the filmmakers suddenly realized that they’ve reached the two-hour mark and had to wrap everything up immediately. Then again, those last few minutes also had some fantastic ruminations on the benefits of being in a relationship and comparing them to those times when it’s best to be left alone.
Her is a work of cinematic genius. It’s such a damn shame that Spike Jonze, Joaquin Phoenix, and Scarlett Johansson weren’t nominated, because they all deliver masterful work here. The movie is clever, it’s romantic, it’s intelligent, bold, provocative… I can’t praise it enough. The film addresses a boatload of unique issues on the subject of romance and technology, and its arguments are all presented in compelling and innovative ways.
Believe the hype and go see this film immediately.