June 4, 2014

Her: The Power of Love in Any Form


Just a short while ago, the premise of a man falling in love with his operating system would seem like a fantasy. Given the recent technological advances and our attachment to devices, this premise doesn't feel so outlandish. During my years taking public transportation to work, I found that most people were lost in their smart phones, books, laptops, and iPods. This isn’t a criticism since my own behavior was right there with everyone else. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our universe and not take a moment to look beyond what’s right in front of us. I’ve caught myself feeling disconnected when my phone isn’t nearby, and it takes a conscious effort to remember it’s okay. This landscape makes the story of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in Her feel like just a future step in our evolution. The interesting part is that it’s presented not as something terrible but as an outlet for growth in a guy who’s lost his way.


A learning system that becomes more alive through interactions with a person is intriguing. They start out doing basic things like sorting e-mails and setting up the calendar and move into another realm entirely. A single ear piece gives us a connection with someone that’s solely focused on our needs. It’s pretty narcissistic when you think about it. The image of people gleefully chatting solo as they stroll down the street is frightening, but not in a Terminator way. This evolution doesn’t foretell the destruction of humanity by artificial intelligence. Instead, it shows the disconnected feelings that so many were experiencing prior to this technology. If having a computer voice along for the ride can make us happy, what does that say about our lives? Also, is it really a bad thing?

The surprising part is the way that Spike Jonze doesn’t make Theodore a creep who has lost touch with reality. When he takes Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) on a double date with his friends, it’s a little awkward but not ridiculous. Theodore’s lonely and socially awkward, but no more than a lot of people. He’s dealing with the aftermath of divorce, and maybe his bond with Samantha is exactly what he needs to escape his depression. It feels a lot more real than his blind date, where both participants feign more interest than what’s actually there. His phone sex call with a woman obsessed with cats is hardly more fulfilling. Samantha evolves because of her relationship with Theodore, so it’s hardly a one-sided relationship. Her programming is set up to support the user, but that’s only the beginning. Her improved understanding comes from him, but the possibilities are endless for her.


What makes Her so stunning is the gorgeous art direction and look. It could play with just the music and images and still shine for most of its running time. Sequences with Theodore strolling through town and talking with Samantha feel so vibrant and enhance the sense that he’s coming alive. The color palette is gorgeous and creates a world that’s unlike ours yet doesn’t feel over the top. That’s hardly an easy task. The score from the Arcade Fire connects perfectly with the mood set by Jonze and the entire production. It was refreshing to see the Oscar-nominated “The Moon Song” fit so nicely within the story. That sequence is magical, and I rarely use that type of hyperbole. We get the sense that we’re just flowing along with the characters in this relationship and aren’t sure where it will take us.

It’s surprising to note that Scarlett Johansson wasn’t the original choice, and Samantha Morton actually played the part of Samantha during initial filming. While there were some re-shoots, Joaquin Phoenix’s reactions come from Morton’s words and not Johansson’s. Given the chemistry that we feel between them, this is a startling revelation. So much of this film involves close-ups of Phoenix reacting to words from an unseen entity, and he never strikes a false note. I haven’t always loved his work in the past, but he deserves the acclaim. The same goes for Johansson, who was the right choice for this part. You can sense her emotions without a single glimpse of her face, and that’s an amazing feat.


It’s strange that I wasn’t that excited about seeing Her when it was released in theaters. It sounded more like a sad tale of a loner with nothing else, but that’s hardly the case. In fact, it’s Theodore’s connection with Samantha that gives him the confidence to have a possible chance with his friend Amy (Amy Adams). He also finally comes to term with his divorce, so the guy we see at the end is changed for the better. Samantha may have outgrown an individual connection with humans, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t leave an impact. Jonze has created a remarkable film that feels very relevant despite its sci-fi premise. It’s one of the great films of 2013 and deserves even more attention. Its ending feels like a rare victory for a character that deserves a lot more than a dreary existence.

10 comments:

  1. For me, this is the best film of 2013 as I think it's Spike Jonze's best work to date. It's one that manages to fidn a soul in the machine while create something that feels human.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't gone back and looked at my list from 2013, but Her would definitely be in the conversation. I agree that the soul is a main reason it's so effective.

      Delete
  2. This is second day in a row that I've read excellent pieces on Her (yesterday's was A Fistful of Films). You two are making me want to go watch this immediately. I'm holding out on purchasing because of the hope it might get fast tracked to a Criterion release (not sure of the chances).

    You've pointed out what truly makes this movie work - Theodore is not a weird guy or a loner. Sure, he's depressed like anyone else who's lost the person they love. That's normal though. Jonze has made this idea so normal that you don't find anything you're watching as too odd to relate. When you combine that with all the genuine observations on love and relationships, and it's easy to see why he won an Oscar.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think there's a pretty good chance it could get a Criterion release. They did one for Being John Malkovich, so there is a precedent. You pinpoint the real success of this film. It makes something that might seem crazy seem normal, and that's not easy. I need to check out that piece from Fisti about it.

      Delete
  3. Really great review! I went for a second screening a day after seeing it for the first time because I loved it so much I just had to see it again. The score was gorgeous, too, I really hoped The Moon Song would win, but seeing the script win was even better! Johansson did an incredible job here, really becoming a character, even though she could only use her voice. Phoenix too, and I appreciated his character as much as you did.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There was little chance that anything would unseat Let It Go for the Oscar, but I agree that Moon Song would have been a great choice. I'd forgotten that it won Best Screenplay until after watching it, and it's definitely well-deserved. Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
  4. Right there with you, Dan, though I'm a bit surprised that you weren't more interested in seeing this from the get-go. I knew the premise sounded a bit ridiculous, but you've seen Jonze's work, so you ought to have known he was capable of something deeper. And boy, is this deep. Also with you on the larger appeal of the production design - it's so beautifully captured and subtle that it adds so much to the film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dylan, I think part of the hesitance was more on my end in having really limited time. We were 10 minutes into Her, and I felt pretty foolish especially when you think of what Spike Jonze has done in the past. Thanks for the visit!

      Delete
  5. I love this film! I understand your surprise on how Jonze didn't make Theodore a creep. Agree, most people are more connected to their gadgets. I also love the art direction. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Andina! It's easily one of the best movies that I saw from last year. I wish that I'd have checked it out sooner.

      Delete