Set in 2025, Her follows Theodore Twombly, a lonely, sensitive, and almost divorced man who purchases a talking operating system designed to evolve and grow (think Siri, but with feelings). As time progresses, Theodore builds a friendship with Samantha (a name the OS picks out for herself), and his fascination with her thirst for life and knowledge soon turns into love.
The film opens with an extreme close-up of the bashful and vulnerable Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who looks straight into the camera and pours his heart out in a stunningly genuine monologue to the love of his life.
The camera then zooms out and we find that Theodore works for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he composes letters for clients that are having trouble connecting emotionally with their loved ones. He recites the heartfelt messages aloud, and they appear in beautiful handwritten scrawl on the computer before him.
The (not too) futuristic setting is easily the strongest part of the film. In the mere eleven years between now and 2025, the city skyline is utterly unrecognizable so much so that the location goes unspecified.
The entire film is visually stunning even in its most mundane moments (with a bold shade of red in about 99% of the shots), but it is the ease and normalcy with which people navigate their hyper-technological lives that pulls the (slightly baffled) viewers into the world.
For example, it is not unnatural for Theodore to be lying on the beach, chatting with his phone (with, not on). The video game he plays comes alive before his eyes and he’s able to converse with its characters. People are all muttering aloud on public transit, giving commands to their phones to check their emails, read them, delete them, and other such entirely human-capable tasks.
The film is satirizing the way we let technology do our heavy lifting, and how we rely on it to do a better job than we can do on our own. Why else do you think we all curse the technology Gods when our Wi-Fi flickers in and out? Or when we poke the frozen screens of our phones with annoyed fingertips utterly gobsmacked because—um, it’s not supposed to do that, it’s supposed to be here for us always.
We do treat our technology like living things, folks. It’s a sad truth.
The OS in Her is an artificial conscience that can grow based on experience. Theodore molds Samantha. She grows based on the tasks he gives her and the questions he asks her (‘check my email’, ‘what’s your name?). He gives her the desire to understand and feel, and leads her to utilize the entire body of human knowledge at her fingertips. She is given ‘life’ because of him. She is, in essence, a manifestation of Theodore himself, and his own wants and desires…which is a troubling concept given that they fall in love. (As the SNL skit says of the matter, ‘the future is weird’).
Joaquin Phoenix plays the lonely, introversion of Theodore to perfection. To put it as simply as possible—I believe him, which is not a statement to be taken lightly seeing as he spends 75% of this film in love with his phone. Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha and though she is also very strong, I am adamantly not with the large movement that suggests she deserved an Oscar nod. She voices an OS people.
Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde round out the cast with fairly forgettable performances, mostly because they play forgettable characters. However, they serve their purposes well by providing human-human relationships for contrast, and also the scale on which people judge human-OS relationships. (Weird sentence?)
Perhaps what I found most interesting about Her, is that the actual barebones love story would have been downright boring outside the confines of its bizarre setting. Basically, if it had been an entire movie of two humans navigating new love—the pivotal moments being waking up in the night to hear each other’s voice or meeting each other’s friends for the first time—I would have been asleep two minutes in.
But, as it happens, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I like my movies like I like my people—a little weird, emotionally complex and a lot of heart… (Oops. Is it too ironic that I just humanized an unhuman entity?)
Having said that, it is certainly not for everyone. It’s quiet, introspective and strange, but also incredibly deep and real. Honestly, I still don’t even know what to do with it.
In the moments when I relaxed into the movie—I believed it all, most particularly in a scene of bone-chilling panic that cemented the fact that technology still has its glitches even in this advanced society. But there were moments that could jar me out of that suspension of disbelief—like when they found a surrogate to play the part of Samantha’s non-speaking body so they could have a physical relationship, or when Samantha would call to say things like “come and lay with me”, following which Theodore would just lie on the bed next to his phone in utter contentment.
And then there were moments that just alarmed me entirely. As Theodore and Samantha’s relationship grows, the differences in their designs become apparent. He gave her life, but with the ability to learn and experience infinitely, Samantha can grow in a way that he never will.
Essentially, we are teetering on this horrifying precipice that while, yes, we do exert a measure of control over the technology we use, we are also reaching a point where technology will be able to ‘outknow’ us…and if you’re not appropriately terrified by that concept, I’m judging you a little bit.
This will undoubtedly win Spike Jonze the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and if it doesn’t I’ll be writing a strongly worded letter to the Academy… which I will be writing by hand since technology and its future now perturbs me a little.
I also think that with a less aged Academy, Her would win for Best Picture, but alas, I believe that this year it will go to 12 Years a Slave.
Stay tuned for our last week of Oscar Nominees reviews with American Hustle and Gravity.
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