Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt
In a world where communication across the globe comes as easy as a flick of a finger, connection seemingly comes at more of a premium. A wave of detachment where it has never theoretically been more difficult to avoid. This way of connecting with others takes a bit of a different but brilliant twist in Her where it sets up an unorthodox relationship but in the process, it makes beautifully poignant observations on the strongest emotion there is: love.
Los Angeles, not too far into the future, finds Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who works as a letter writer for hire. Still on the verge of signing his divorce papers, he feels lonely and remains detached from all of his friends. When he discovers a new operating system that creates an artificially intelligent virtual assistant named Samantha, he becomes intrigued with the capabilities of this new piece of technology. While still trying to push the limits of what Samantha can do, he begins to develop feelings for it.
Telling most people about the plot of Her would have them give you a side eye and question your decision in movie watching. Yes, this narrative can be distilled to a lonely guy falling in love with the equivalent of an advanced Siri but it does so much more. It sets up an all too realistic future to speak on in what ways humans connect in such a lusciously created world all while exploring the emotional turmoil of the protagonist.
The production design of this feature is to die for and I quickly fell in love with it. Certainly not dystopian, the bright colors that pop right off the screen typically matches up well with what the characters wear and what they feel. All of it comes with intentionality even to the point where the characters match their technology in color, almost demonstrating the way in which we have bonded with our technological devices more than we have with other human beings. It has even gotten to the point in this particular world that Theodore has a job writing personalized notes for his clients. Something so personal and supposedly private outsourced out for someone else to complete out of sheer convenience. If we cannot spare the time to be in the moment for those we love then it leaves nothing left for the rest of the civilization around us.
Perhaps the scariest facet of this future is that I could honestly see this happening. It feels like a warning of the way we simply do not affix ourselves to others unless absolutely necessary. Several scenes depict Theodore walking through trains stations and other public areas where everyone is talking on their phone or utilizing the device for some other reason. Necks strained to continually look down with eyes never making contact with another pair. Now walk onto many college campuses and urban areas. You’ll see the exact same thing. It becomes difficult to judge the actions of Theodore and others in this film because this could very well be our reality in the very near future.
This particular judgement will come from the relationship Theodore has with the virtual assistant, Samantha. At first, the conversations become probing with the software meaning to learn every second it speaks and adapt to the user. It begins with the little laughs and then falls into something much deeper and a distinct romanticism sprouts out of these conversations because strangely enough, these conversations Theodore has with Samantha is the most interaction he’s had with others for a long time now. Simple questions and statements from the simple act of talking make all of the difference in this relationship and inform how it falls into the romantic.
The love emanating through conversation harnesses another aspect of this relationship seeing as Theodore never has a visual for this artificial life form. Not even in the form of an audio equalizer to show the levels of Samantha delivering dialogue. All of it occurs through an earpiece Theodore keeps on him. It harkens back to how phone calls serve as a rarity today and how much communication, or miscommunication, occurs through text or email. Just hearing another’s voice can make a distinct impact on the conversation and Theodore receives this from Samantha much more consistently than anyone else. All of their dialogues get presented as Theodore speaking and it becomes incredibly clear how much he begins to feel for her and how it gets reciprocated.
Of course, none of this would work without the spectacular voice work by Scarlett Johannssen. One of the greatest performances ever given simply through the use of voice. No sense of roboticism we still hear in our virtual assistants, Johannssen brings this character to life to make her feel more human than most of the other characters in the narrative. This virtual assistant can harbor emotions and even pick up on different tones Theodore produces. Johannssen has quite the range of emotions to capture purely through her voice and does a splendid job from joyful to heartbroken. A mesmerizing experience and she pairs beautifully well with an all-timer performance by Joaquin Phoenix.
An actor with an incredible amount of range, I find myself most appreciative of when he takes a step back from the theatrics and portrays a beautifully grounded character. He takes on Theorodre, who could be seen as a loser, but makes him a fully realized person who still grieves for the transgressions of the past and seeks for something brighter in the future. Phoenix uses his soft voice to give such meek characterization to Theodore but is also sensitive and thoughtful enough to write the wonderful letters he gets commissioned to create. With him acting opposite a phone for several segments throughout the narrative, he gets asked to do plenty of heavy lifting and does just that by putting in my favorite performance of his to date.
I would honestly pay good money to peek into the mind of Spike Jonze just to get into his headspace and how he comes with up these wacky ideas and makes emotionally resonant work. As he does in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, he creates features that do not come in a straightforward manner but have a level of poignancy to them I completely adore. With Her he creates his masterpiece in both penning the script and directing the feature, he completes visionary and potent work. You can feel the love he has for this artificial world and the characters inhabiting it. A level of meticulousness and care jumps right off of the screen to allow this sanitized version of Los Angeles to have a beating heart.
On paper, Her should not work but it pushes the audience to think beyond what occurs on the surface. A perfect feature film in setting up the players and allowing their emotions to flow in finding the humanity in everyone and perhaps a piece of artificial intelligence. Through Samantha, Theodore feels happiness, pain, grief, and a whole host of emotions simply because he has something to talk to. It can give off the weird vibe of how these technological geniuses could construct something as adaptive, human-like, but ultimately artificial as Samantha. However, she makes such a genuine impact within the narrative but also as a thought exercise of how this could easily become reality in the near future. The film ultimately comes down to connection, whether it be with other humans or something else, Theodore finds something special in Samantha and it becomes difficult to root against them in the process.