Her is one of those films that doesn’t quite fit the usual genre molds. According to most trailers, it’s a romantic comedy with a dash of science fiction. In truth, it’s a science fiction romance with some great comedy.
Her is the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer who can express others’ emotions through handwritten letters but has trouble doing so himself. As his divorce to his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) is finalized, Theodore begins a relationship with his new Operating System, a pleasant-sounding and ever-evolving AI named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). What follows is an awkward romance between Theodore and Samantha, as the two try to bridge the gap between the physical and mental. But issues emerge, stemming from Theodore’s emotional distance and Samantha’s excitement at being an AI that grows beyond her original programming. The conflict is internal, as Samantha’s lack of a body makes it difficult to stay connected to Theodore in a way that his human companions—like Amy (Amy Adams)—can offer and do offer throughout the film.
Joaquin Phoenix performs well as the awkward Twombly, often conveying his emotional and romantic desperation in a single glance. I also enjoyed the variety of female performances in the film, ranging from warm (Scarlett Johansson and Amy Adams) to critical (Rooney Mara) to thrill-seeking (Olivia Wilde). But the heart of the film is Phoenix playing the socially awkward everyman to Johansson’s artificial humanity. It’s funny how easy it is when you’re watching the movie to forget that Johansson is just a voice, but every time you hear her, she brings a presence that’s hard to miss, especially when supported by Phoenix’s well-timed expressions.
Besides the great acting, I was really blown away by how good the film looks. Set in a future Los Angeles, the city and Twombly’s workplace all have shades of color and design that remind me of Seoul or Tokyo: a blend of bright colors and high-tech. It’s Los Angeles reimagined as a post-cyberpunk city, with neo-skyscrapers, ubiquitous earplugs (for chatting with sentient OSes), and immersive video games. It’s the kind of world that I’d like to get lost in for a day (or maybe a week, if allowed). And there’s also the cool soundtrack by Arcade Fire, which occasionally gets a nod within the story; Samantha will say she’s composing a piano piece right before we get the appropriately touching music over a scene or montage.
One idea that stuck with me throughout the film was how the science fiction didn’t take away from the romance or the comedy. If anything, Spike Jonze was clever enough to turn a romantic comedy into a thought experiment. Much like the famous Turing Test, Johansson’s performance kept both Theodore and the audience guessing about whether her emotional expressions were genuine or clever responses from an elaborate sense of pattern recognition.
It was also a study of online relationships and how we’ve come to rely on digital medium for more meaningful human interaction. I was proud of the mention that other human beings were said to be forming intimate relationships with their own OSes—including Amy Adams, whose character is said to find emotional support after a short and painful divorce. It shows that the technology and its potential isn’t just limited to Theodore’s personal life (which I was afraid of after seeing so many trailers). More films should focus on this aspect of science fiction: the spread of new technology and how it reacts to and changes our human condition.
To sum up, I really, really enjoyed Her from start to finish. Some of the drama caught me off-guard, but it’s still a film with a lot of laughs, a lot of soul, and some interesting questions. I don’t want to paint it as “romantic comedy for smart people,” but rather as a romantic comedy with a new kind of appeal.
Her is available through Warner Bros. Pictures and is currently in theaters.
Bibliography: Her. Directed by Spike Jonze. Produced by Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, and Vincent Landay. Written by Spike Jonze. Perf. Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde. Annapurna Pictures. Warner Bros. Pictures. Original release date: December 18, 2013.