A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.
Year 2, Film #57
THE REVIEW: One of the things I enjoy most about doing Oscar month and watching Best Picture nominees (or in this case, soon to be nominee) is that, quite often, these films demonstrate why they’re so well received and are a shining example of filmmakers taking risks in the industry rather than sticking to the same-old, same-old. Spike Jonze’s Her is one such film. It’s bold, it’s fresh, and it’s new, yet it has that familiar element — that human connection — of telling not just a story, but something that’s much more. Something that makes us look at our own lives and question some of our fundamental experiences.
One of the best things about Spike Jonze’s work (he also directed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. — both very great films) is his ability to make the weird and futuristic seem normal and commonplace. As you’ve probably seen in the ads or trailers (or if you’ve asked Siri), Her is a film where Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), an artificial intelligence operating system. Especially in a society like the one we live in today where people are constantly checking their phones and are illuminated by the bright screen, having a love story set around technology might seem like a satire or a commentary on why this behavior should stop. But Jonze goes the opposite direction and not only tells a compelling love story, but makes us feel that it’s real. The parellels to today’s technology did cross my mind as I watched the film but for the most part, I didn’t look at Theodore’s and Samantha’s relationship as one between a human and a computer; I saw it just as a relationship. And Jonze is able to do this because he doesn’t rely on common stereotypes or clichés about technology; he just relies on natural interactions. Seeing Theordore walk around talking to himself (really Samantha in his ear-piece) isn’t weird, it’s normal.
Having this level of realism is vital for Her in terms of establishing and developing the character’s relationships. Theodore is a sweet and charming guy, a bit lonely and reserved, but very much enjoys the company of others. Going through a divorce with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) is taking a toll on him and he begins looking for someone or something to fill that void. His work as a “handwritten” letter writer is not as fun as it used to be because, for him, there’s a hole inside him that’s empty. After seeing an advertisement for this new OS, he buys one, and after a little setup, is introduced to the “thing” that decides her name is Samantha. She is also very kind and because of Theodore, develops a desire to learn and discover new things. I called Samantha a “thing” but the beauty about Her is it makes you question what some “thing” really is.
What constitutes a person? What constitutes a relationship? Can someone truly interact with, and come to love, some “thing” that has no physical form? Samantha is much more than just a “thing”, she is “her”; she is a person. Samantha has thoughts and feelings just like anyone else and can interact with people to such an extent that she know when something is wrong, or when it might not be appropriate to bring up a certain topic. Samantha is just as human as any of us, minus the body. This leads to two interesting moments in the film: Isabella (Portia Doubleday) and Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine.
Isabella is a surrogate date that Samantha encourages Theodore to try and which he reluctantly accepts. This is an interesting moment because up until this point, the movie had been plausible and acceptable. While non-existant today, a serious relationship between man and machine in Her seems all but second-nature. Where I drew the line, as did Theodore, in terms of crossing an ethical/moral boundary, was with Isabella and having her take the place of Samantha. Because Samantha doesn’t have a physical body, the only way for anything to work (so-to-speak) is to have a surrogate. The fact that Isabella threw up a red-flag isn’t surprising, but it makes the fact that Theodore and Samantha’s relationship doesn’t all the more interesting.
Catherine takes a much more conservative and predictable approach and accuses Theodore of having “a relationship with his laptop”. This scene takes place later on in the film when the two meet to finalize their divorce, so by this time you’re accustomed to Theodore and Samantha. Any thoughts of this being a film about a man and his laptop have gone out the window and it’s merely about two people’s love for each other. What’s interesting about Catherine’s scene here is it brings that question back to the forefront of your mind: is this relationship real? It raises doubts as to whether or not Theodore and Samantha should be together. The relationship itself is still not out of the ordinary (again, this futuristic situation feel very real and natural) but are the feelings these two are experiencing true love? Is love just a, “socially acceptable form of insanity” as Amy (Amy Adams) puts it or is it something else?
Another way Her demonstrates the risks Spike Jonze took and makes this film so bold is, it avoids many easy-outs. Films about artificial intelligence have been made before and the typical Hollywood plot would revolve around the OSes recording or collection personal data, the uprising of the AI against their human creators, a recall of the software by the company, or something else of the like. These ideas, and the many others similar to them, would be the result of your average studio executive wanting the film to appeal to the broadest possible audience whom they assume can only understand the simplest of stories. Her doesn’t fall for any of these tropes and instead blazes a new path. I won’t spoil what actually happens, but I can say that despite many moments worrying that the film would have one of these cliché endings, I was pleasantly surprised.
Her is easily one of the best films of 2013 and will no doubt be a big contender during this awards season. I think Gravity still holds my personal number one spot but it’s important to note that the strengths of Gravity is that it’s much more thrilling and edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Her is much more subdued and introspective film that focuses on a love between Theodore and Samantha. Spike Jonze skillfully crafts these characters and the environment they live in to raise some important questions and thoughts about what relationships truly are. Can a human have a genuine relationship and love for an artificial intelligence? And more broadly, what is love anyway? There are moments of happiness, sadness, hilarity — especially with the alien child (voiced by director Spike Jonze) in the video game — fear, and tough truths scattered throughout the film. A must-see and a ripe choice for your own list of favorite films.
THE RATING: 5 out of 5