In This Future, Humans Aren’t the Only Ones Who Can Feel

Review of “Her”

By Vincent Abbatecola

One thing that a director should do at some point in his career is tell a story that has striking relevance to modern society. It will be cinema that’s both stimulating and reflective, encouraging the viewers to compare what’s on screen to what they’ve experienced in reality.

Director Spike Jonze has done that with “Her,” and he has made an astonishing achievement in depicting a society and its attachment to technology. Science-fiction films often depict views of what filmmakers fantasize the future to look like, but sometimes, there can be that touch of reality to a sci-fi film, a prediction of where we’re headed. Judging by the look of his film, we’re alarmingly close to what he presents. On the other hand, we may be already there.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a solitary man who works as a writer, crafting letters for people who have trouble expressing their feelings. He’s currently in the process of divorcing his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), but he’s reluctant to let go.

Feeling desperate for a woman’s compassion, he purchases an operating system with artificial intelligence, which is designed to evolve, psychologically, like a human being. Theodore chooses for the OS to have a female identity, and she names herself “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The two form a bond, and Theodore couldn’t be happier, however, as the two spend more time together and Samantha begins to learn a lot about the world and who she is as an OS, their relationship begins to face unforeseen complications.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a heartfelt performance as Theodore, one that he makes searingly relatable because of the way it mirrors how, just like him, we take certain comfort in technology. He’s a soft-spoken individual who wants to be loved. When Theodore interacts with others through technology, before he meets Samantha, Phoenix’s grip on the role shows you that Theo is still feeling the emptiness of being without someone with whom to truly connect.

He has a poetic soul bottled up that he wants to share, but he doesn’t have anyone with whom to share it. When Phoenix expresses Theodore’s happiness around Samantha, he evokes a conflicted response from us because we want to feel glad for him that he’s becoming less antisocial, but at the same time, we can’t help but feel sorry for him because it’s a computer that he’s connecting with, not an actual person.

Scarlett Johansson, in a purely vocal performance, brings the warmth and soul of a human to her computer character. Samantha is like a benevolent and emotional version of HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” She’s affectionate, analytical and curious, and although she’s not human, Samantha displays an adventurous spirit with an eagerness to learn. This is all because of Johansson’s ability to make this operating system one with intense humanistic qualities. She doesn’t sound robotic in any way, and is instead more like a digital specter with a voice you can trust.

Samantha is given terrific depth for a non-human character, a depth that becomes greater at one point in the film when she begins to question who she is. It’s hard to think of a computer having an existential crisis, but it’s an aspect of her character that brings her closer to being human. Although Samantha is a computer, Johansson’s approach to the character almost makes her one of the most human in the film because of how much of life she wants to experience, whereas everyone else has become conjoined with their electronic devices, being more concerned with what’s on their screens than with the action happening around them.

The women of the supporting cast have a significant impact on the narrative, despite the fact that a few of them have limited screen time. There’s Olivia Wilde, who appears as a blind date for Theodore, and Rooney Mara, who plays his troubled ex-wife. Amy Adams, meanwhile, has a bigger supporting role as Theodore’s understanding friend who tries to connect with him.

One interesting aspect of the film is Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, which he uses to capture the antisocial nature of Phoenix’s character. When Theodore is alone, there are long shots of him in whatever environment he’s in, allowing the viewer to see him in the context of the space, as well as to see how solo he looks. When he’s talking to Samantha in some of these shots, the camera zooms into him to have us feel closer to his character, just as he does with Samantha. When he’s in the company of someone else, he and his companion are framed in close-ups. While that is normal for any movie, it’s especially effective in this case because you become so attached to his character that you desperately want him to reach out to others, and these close-ups heighten the level of intimacy between Theodore and the person with whom he’s sharing the screen.

The production design by K.K. Barrett utilizes color schemes that are effectively dull in order to emphasize the plainness and lack of vibrancy in Theodore’s life. One color that appears very often is red. Being a warm color, it symbolizes the passion that Theodore is missing and wants in his life, and it’s more than appropriate that this is a dominating color throughout the film.

Jonze has written a screenplay that can be seen as part science-fiction, part romantic-comedy, part romantic-drama and part cautionary-tale. The first couple of scenes are strange, but that’s to be expected with Jonze’s unique premise. Actually, the strangeness benefits the narrative because it can cause the viewer to feel uncomfortable about the technology that is used in place of human interaction, scenes that call for reflection on how we ourselves handle technology.

This is a techno-love story that raises the question of whether or not the love between Theodore and Samantha can be considered as real, a question that can sway you into thinking one way at a certain point of the film, only to sway you into thinking something else later on. It’s all about how you view their relationship and the genuineness of their interaction. The film, however, doesn’t just have to be viewed as a love story between the two characters, but can also be seen as a darkly funny commentary of our own love for technology.

The film is beautifully well-paced, and although it’s a two-hour story about a man who falls in love with an operating system, everything that happens in the film is essential for the plot, nothing can be taken out. There’s a scene in the film that makes a significant emotional impact that involves Samantha hiring a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to act as her body so she and Theodore can have a night of intimacy. I won’t give anything else away, but it’s a scene that’s perfect and so smart for the story’s overall message, that you almost can’t imagine the film not having that one scene.

With “Her,” Jonze has created one of the most relevant film’s out there today. He delivers a thoughtful look on society and the expansion of the digital age. He doesn’t specify as to when in the future the narrative takes place; all we can decipher is that it’s pretty close to what we experience today. To many, this love story will seem very unconventional, however, given the numerous ways that people connect with new technology, maybe it’s not so unconventional after all.

Final grade: A

Reviewer’s Note – Unfortunately, “Her” didn’t receive a wide release until last Friday; therefore, I wasn’t able to view it in time to consider it for my “Top Five” article, which was published in the January 2 – January 8 edition. Having seen “Her,” I can confidently say that it is my favorite film of 2013.