“How do you share your life with somebody?”
This is the question asked by Sam (Scarlett Johansson) of her still somewhat grief stricken and (not so) recently separated lover Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) on their way back to their Los Angeles condo home in Spike Jonze’s future-forward sci-fi romance Her. Sam is book smart and wise beyond her years, but still somewhat a novice in love. Theodore has loved greatly and lost big in his time, a life experience that he puts into his day to day job manufacturing thoughtful handwritten letters for customers by way of a computer. It also causes him to approach his burgeoning relationship with Sam with a great degree of caution, and not just because she isn’t even human. She’s the disembodied, computer manufactured voice of an operating system that was designed to manage Theodore’s email, phone, and organizational needs, but was created by an algorithm to connect to him on a deeper emotional level instead of a just a bunch of good looking and sounding 1s and 0s.
It’s a loaded question for the characters and the audience, borne from one of the most thoughtful screenplays in recent memory in the best movie of the year. Her is nothing short of astonishing: a brainy science fiction yarn set in a not too distant future that also functions as an off kilter, but never ironic, creepy, or off putting modern romance. It’s a reflection of narcissism, consumerism, and most importantly alienation in our modern digital world.
Phoenix, in one of his career best performances, plays Theodore as a well meaning, realistically stammering nerd who can’t escape technology. His job revolves around it, using his creative streak to write down the words people can no longer articulate to those they love directly. The second his job ends he checks his voicemails repeatedly for news about a possible reconciliation with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). He’s been dragging his heels on the divorce because Catherine remains his one really tenuous link to the human world around him. He tries finding human comfort in online dating and through sex lines, but he’s often lumped in with people he’s just incompatible with. Into his life comes the hot new operating system that everyone can’t live without. One that asks the user a couple of deeply personal (and strangely Oedipal) questions and crafts a life management program in the owner’s own image.
The very concept of Sam’s creation is a brilliant one right off the bat. Aside from the obvious attraction that a human can feel towards a person, place, or thing that can manage every nitpicking aspect of their day to day lives, Jonze’s screenplay forces the viewer to realize that technology is just as much about what people put into it as it is what they get out of it. To a certain extent, Theodore is attracted to Sam because she’s an amalgamation of manufactured kindness sold to an iGeneration that craves simplification in the best looking package possible and his own personal neuroses that can be gleaned from the answers to questions, his tone, his emails, and his work. Naturally Theodore would fall in love with Sam regardless of a personal connection because Sam is essentially a female voiced, carbon copied version of himself that can ape everything he might say about a given subject to a perfect T.
But there also lies the hook of Jonze’s thesis: if these machines are created in our own image and we begin to have an attachment, couldn’t they also have a constantly evolving consciousness that a human would have? Technology for decades has been pretty cut and dry. Something either works or it doesn’t. Today, if something goes wrong with a home computer or technological device (short of mechanical death) they function like any other friendly or romantic relationship: it was either something the owner has done or something the device is currently doing that it shouldn’t be doing that leads to the dissolution of the relationship. These machines that we so willingly depend on won’t always be there when we need them. They will let us down. We will in turn abuse, curse at them, and run them into the ground. We will come back to them on our hands and knees and be thankful if they return to form, or we can acrimoniously cut all ties and toss them aside. And the more and more we depend on these devices to connect to other humans, it’s only natural to expect these programs and circuits to take on more and more human attributes in the eyes of users and operators.
The more Sam learns about Theodore and his world, the more attracted it becomes to its owner. It’s a credit to Jonze and Johansson’s soulful voicework that I want to always refer to Sam as a “her” or a “she” than an “it.” Sam is a character that’s able to take viewers and its owner back to a more innocent time when the world was full of possibility. It’s not only a tale of Theodore’s emotional recovery, but also of Sam’s newfound sense of self discovery and how that ties into what Theodore finds attractive in a significant other. It’s dealt with in an electrifying and deeply heartfelt manor that never falls into the trappings of sappy technology aided romances or the outright terror of a cautionary thriller.
But Jonze is certainly out to caution on a deeper level than merely scaring the audience with talk of sentient machines. There’s not Skynet-like organization that could unleash Doomsday that might ever compare to the potential loss of a loved one. They’re overwhelming in different ways, but Jonze scales things back (outside of some impressive production design) to suggest that the latter could be far more damaging and scarring. About three-quarters of the way through many viewers might find themselves transported back to their more formative years and the relationships that became lynchpins in their own lives: those romantic interludes where one partner might be progressing more professionally and intellectually than the other, leading to a fight or flight response from one or both parties.
What makes this conceit work so well is that Jonze and his cast play this universe perfectly straight and the friendly and romantic relationships are fully formed from the most important characters to the ones that briefly come into Theodore’s life to make an indelible impact. In a key, but unshowy supporting role, Amy Adams plays Theodore’s closest personal confidant and friend; a woman who is similarly going through romantic and professional difficulties as a struggling documentarian. Olivia Wilde only shows up for a single sequence as a disastrous date for Theodore and she’s given the task of making the interpersonal connections of the new wired world created by Jonze understood in a brief, bravura performance. Even Chris Pratt gets a chance to deliver a playful, small turn as the eager receptionist in Theodore’s office who doesn’t miss a beat or look down upon his co-worker for starting up a romantic relationship with a computer program.
There’s much more to be talked about when it comes to Her, but I’m hesitant to spoil the surprise or emotional impact of a film that still hasn’t opened wide enough for the whole world to see just yet. It can be read in numerous different ways, and much like the technology and culture that Jonze seeks to lampoon, viewers will get out of the film precisely what they put into it. In the future I plan to write a more spoiler-filled look at the film, but for now I’ll leave it as is, content with calling it the most intriguing and touching film of the year.