Words like authenticity and sincerity lose their meaning the more we throw them around, but few films have touched on the nuances of the human experience like Her, especially this year. Amidst the blockbusters and robust over-the-top rollicking movies that project outwards and upwards, Her delves inwards, constantly inviting our own reactions to be examined and considered. Rarely has a movie ever gotten the various stages of romance so right. The awkward initial conversations, the difficulty in trying to work through problems, the revelations, highs and lows that come with loving someone well — it’s all here, laid out in perfect form, beautiful and complete.
In the not too distant future city of Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a writer of letters, specifically of other people’s letters, for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. He’s a bit of an outsider, spending his days working, playing video games and having meaningless virtual sexual encounters, but shunning most human interactions, including the invitations of his long time friend Amy (Amy Adams). When Theodore purchases an artificially intelligent operating system to “organize” his life, he discovers a great deal more in the lively, intelligent Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Though she initially begins to simply help Theodore rejoin the rest of the world by beginning to move past his divorce to his wife (Rooney Mara), he eventually begins to see a kindred spirit in Samantha, and falls in love with her as easy as falling asleep. She effectively experiences the world through Theodore’s eyes, via a small smart phone device and an earpiece that connects them, and they spend their days talking, laughing, having sexual encounters and exploring what it means to be human, alive, aware and in love.
Lest this sounds too weighty or heavy, let me be clear — Her is an amazingly fun film to watch. Inventive, creative, beautiful and interesting. Director Spike Jonze’ vision of the future looks a lot like our modern day life with a few tweaks here and there, product design is different in the future, video games are immersive, cities appear to be so spread out that they are rather sparsely populated. People still look the same, and dress like it’s the seventies, so I guess not too much is different. Everyone seems to work in online environments that still relate to the minutiae of daily life. Jonze’ world is also beautiful, muted colors and grand urban vistas, it’s clear a great deal of thought went into the look and feel of this future.
There’s obvious overtones here, people searching for connection, longing for deeper truths even in the middle of virtual environments, but the movie isn’t as obsessed with all that as it seems on the surface. Instead, the slightly colder and more isolated future is rather the setting for the love story. Other people aren’t particularly as judgmental about Samantha’s computer state as Theodore tends to be, indeed his co-worker (Chris Pratt) accepts the news without even blinking twice. One of the real delights of the film is the handling of sexuality throughout as a touchstone of the human experience that simply can’t be effectively outsourced or replaced, especially in relationships. Whether people are having sex or trying to have sex, it remains a deep-seated need in almost all people and a physical experience that cannot be replicated in the mental realm. The palpable longing in both Theodore and Samantha’s voices as they speak to one another is unsettling at times, as Samantha cycles through phases of longing for a body, then exulting in her formless state. It seems possible that Samantha has a kind of soul, but what is a soul without a body? What is the approximation of life, worth?
What stood out to me perhaps most about the relationship was both Theodore and Samantha’s willingness to work through things, together. Perhaps people are more evolved in this coming future, able to speak easily about things because there is less privacy. Both Theodore and Samantha responded so lovingly and honestly to the other that it’s hard to find fault with much of the mechanics of their relationship. Would that we all speak so honestly and warmly to one another, so openly about our faults and fears. When questioned as to his actions, Theodore almost always responded thoughtfully, trying to dissect his own emotional responses, intellectually. Almost certain the lack of physicality aids intimacy, easier to speak our feelings and thoughts into space rather than into the face of a living, breathing person with the power to walk away.
While everyone else in the film is a step above a cameo, (enjoy your five minutes of Olivia Wilde!) everything they say about Scarlett Johansson’s performance is true. She is easily a scene stealer, playing to the very edges of her voice with skill and full knowledge of what an instrument she possesses. Sensual, hilarious, vivid, honest — her voice runs the spectrum and back again, giving more than life to the character, but giving her depth and resonance as well. We dismantle our skepticism that anyone could fall in love with a computer, and begin to believe in this, well, this person, who seems to struggle mightily with all the trappings of modern life. (In fact, her performance is made all the more interesting when you consider that Samantha Morton originated the voice on set, and it was only in post production that Jonze re-cast the role, bringing in Scarlett Johansson to re-dub the vocals.) In perfect counterpart, Joaquin Phoenix gives one of the most emotionally robust and vulnerable performances, giving himself wholly over to the character of Theodore, in all his confusion and growth.
Ultimately, Samantha and Theodore’s lives are made so much better by one another. We often speak of having love for others, but to leave someone far better than you found them, to love them so well that you bring them into the fullness of life, seems the truest expression of our humanity. Her is really more the story of them, and in the softest details, the best story of us, the one we tell ourselves can be, if we let it.
Amanda Mae Meyncke lives in Los Angeles and writes, on occasion.