When you hear the premise of the film Her (2013), you might get the wrong impression. It’s about an artificially intelligent operating system personalized to the consumer but it learns and grows through its experience. It sounds vaguely as though it could venture into a paranoid story line of computers taking over our world. Or, worse, it could be some half-hearted rehash of the same themes as A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). The writer/director Spike Jonze, known his oddly imaginative films like Being John Malkovich (1999), does recover some ground, but in a new way. Her perfectly realizes the weird scenarios, bringing out the realism from the fantasy. Here is our future, it’s not so strange, but it is a little different. And there’s a lot of red.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) has lost a little bit of his spark. Going through a rough divorce with Catherine (Rooney Mara), he can’t get himself to sign the final papers. Even so, she’s out of his life and its left him mopey and distant. All of his positive emotions are channeled through his work as a ghost writer. Then he hears about OS1, an artificially intelligent operating system that will match itself with Theodore’s personality and then learn from its experience. After a very brief quiz, out pops the smokey voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). He has some initial hesitation, but it doesn’t take too long before this becomes a serious relationship. Most, like his neighbor and long-time buddy Amy (Amy Adams) are nonjudgmental and accept it on its own terms. But it’s not without its difficulties. After all, Samantha isn’t real, is she?
The question of whether a machine can be what we might simply call a “person” is not a new one. But Her goes even further on the voice of Scarlett Johansson than A.I. Artificial Intelligence got on the power of Haley Joel Osment‘s cute face and quirky performance. That’s because Jonze accepts and expresses the premise that AI can establish a self-educating program that can learn to think and behave like a human. Osment was always a machine with a veneer that constantly reminded you of the lie, but Samantha as a voice only brings out deep emotions from Theodore and continually proves her humanity. Whenever Theodore says something diminishing or insensitive, you feel it. You judge him for his failure to respect her as a feeling thing. After all, if she thinks she’s feeling it, isn’t that all that matters? The movie is a constant reminder to consider the emotions of other people when we interact with them. In a way, it’s harder to be rude to a machine than it is to another human.
Bringing out these elements so brilliantly should be rewarded. Johansson was unbelievably good. The power of editing to enable a physical performance–consider Drive (2011) and how you could essentially film Ryan Gosling for two hours and cut together the right expressions–is absent from a vocal performance like Johansson’s. Joaqin Phoenix is now, after The Master (2012), expected to be great and he was not disappointing. Amy Adams, likewise proven and re-proven, is probably my favorite human character in the movie. She has to give Theodore perspectives in slightly platitudinous terms, but even that can’t diminish her un-made-up realism. That’s what it is, that’s what everyone did, they made it all feel real.
Her is also a film of spectacular cinematography (Hoyte Van Hoytema). The general look of the film is that kind of extra sharp warmth which seems both sterile and cozy. The camera plays with depth of field to show how focused Theodore is on a particular thing with a shallow depth of field (little in focus) showing how inward he was while a deep field shows his wandering mind. That created some great shots. Some brief, others lingering, but all seemed very like beautiful still photography. The music from Arcade Fire and whoever did the piano stuff fit perfectly. In a movie where everything draws attention to itself–they talk about the themes openly, they talk about the soundtrack, the camera is very noticeable–it’s strangely acceptable. What usually feels like an intrusion into the viewer’s duty of interpretation was, in Her, a welcome second half of the conversation.
A funny thing happened after the movie. The people next to me (a couple) immediately, immediately looked at their smart phones. Whether it was to check their messages or post “Best. Movie. Ever.” They just had to connect. That struck me as pretty ironic when the film, though not judging Theodore’s relationship with Samantha, is definitely taking a swipe at our over-connectivity (or perhaps pseudo-connectivity). This is a movie you should stew on for a moment or two. Leave the phone alone.
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