Review: Her (2013, Jonze)


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(Some spoilers ahead)
Her comes at you with open arms and an open heart. It is ready and eager to engage your mind and soul. That openness, an inclusive openness, is a lot of what I loved Her. It allows the story to interact with the audience on an uncommon level. We see our own relationship with technology up onscreen, amplified by an idealistic near future with its colorful and endlessly soothing aesthetic and its recognizable tweaks to everyday life. But we, even more importantly, see our relationships with people up on the screen, and the familiar but always earth-shattering patterns in which people grow in and out of each other.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) embarks on uncharted territory by getting involved with his operating system. That newness of the unknown is used on a broader level to get at what a seminal new relationship can feel like. That so-we’re-really-going-to-do-this kind of excitement. On the other side of the hill, when Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) drops a bomb on Theodore, it’s of a bewildering extreme, also representing that is-this-really-happening disbelief when everything crumbles.

It’s so important, perhaps more important than anything to me regarding Her, that Samantha is her own being. At times it comes close to getting into tired man-jilted-by-woman territory, but the film and Samantha catch certain moments when Theodore is too entrenched in his own feelings to see hers. We see it, she sees it. That he gets called out on it is critical. In one way, even if this wasn’t intentional, it’s sort of about a man realizing that women exist outside of their own orbit (shocking I know!). As sad as the film can be and as attached we get to the central relationship, I was also so pleased to see Samantha venture into the unknown, to test her own limits and find her own purpose.

As remarkable as Joaquin Phoenix is here (which it should go without saying at this point) with Theodore’s permanent halfway-out-of-his-shell demeanor, it’s Scarlett Johansson I was most struck by. Her breakneck growth, enthusiasm, inquisitive nature; trying to grasp at human emotion and where she fits within and outside of that spectrum. Her feisty shrug-like manner and cautious tip-toeing inquiries. She even makes us feel a sense of the intangible space she occupies. It’s kind of insane.

I also fell in love with the friendship between Theodore and Amy (Amy Adams). They have the comfort, ease and support that long-term friendships carry. They console, they advise, they don’t judge. Amy isn’t just put in the film so Theodore can have someone to talk about his struggles. He’s there so she can talk about hers. So at the end when it all seems pretty hopeless what with the realities of change and failed sustainable connections, Theodore goes to Amy for comfort. And it’s beautiful because there’s a faith in peoples ability to be there for each other. To have that shoulder to lean on. Again, critically, it’s mutual. She has lost someone too. They comfort each other. Human connection remains intact without dismissing the positive sides of unseeable kinds of connection. Regardless of the fallout, nothing about Theodore and Samantha is depicted with anything approaching skepticism.

Her reminds me a lot of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (but far more optimistic), not just because of the lo-fi sci-fi element but for the encompassing way it tackles the experience of loving and living and losing that at times approaches profundity. The acknowledgment that bad comes with good and it’s often all worth it even if it can seem like it’s not. There is something of the hopeless romantic in Her; that love-on-a-pedestal way of looking at life, where emotional vulnerability is both risky and worthy.

I always pick up on a melancholy air in Spike Jonze’s work. Yes there’s that optimism, but it’s more of a tone I speak of. I cannot for the life of me intellectualize it but it’s there, to the point where I haven’t worked up the nerve to revisit Where the Wild Things Are since theaters. And I’m someone who tends to run towards melancholic things, not away from them!

Jonze’s first screenplay is a wonderful achievement, exploring the intricacies of love but also taking slightly surreal side trips into the kinds of bizarre scenarios the future may hold, which often involve middlemen and ways we become further isolated from each other. If I have one complaint, it’s that it periodically feels like the film indulges Theodore too much, in a way that can make him seem kind of childlike.

Nevertheless, Her is a lovingly crafted, deeply intimate piece of work that has struck a nerve with many, myself included, and rightly so.

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3 comments

  1. Her is special because it’s really about the emergence of an AI mind – artificial intelligence. The previews made it look like it would be some silly movie making fun of Apple’s Siri, but Her was actually a very serious science fictional movie about the birth of an artificial being. Written science fiction has a history of such stories, but it’s a topic less explored in movies. Robert J. Sawyer’s trilogy of Wake, Watch and Wonder is a recent example about the emergence of an intelligence inside the Internet who contacts a young blind girl with experimental artificial eyes.

    In science, it’s common to talk about The Singularity, the point in which machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence. Her was about this, but without being scientific or pedantic. It really is a lovely film.

    1. I’m pretty unfamiliar with sci-fi traditions in storytelling with regards to AI, but I really appreciated the different angle you speak of. It’s a humanistic way at looking at a being that isn’t human. Samantha’s growth and awakening is what interested me most. Lovely is definitely the word. Thanks for commenting!

  2. If you like Samantha, then maybe you would like to try a science fiction book. Wake by Robert Sawyer, When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein are all about the emergence of an AI mind. They were written by SF writers. Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers was written by a literary writer exploring the same territory. Her makes a wonderful addition to these stories.

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