22) Her [9.5]

Spike Jonze takes the helm for this comedy about a withdrawn writer (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer’s highly advanced operating system. (2013)

In any form of media, there is a subset of science fiction that holds a mirror to our understanding of society. This can be confounding with consideration to how out there the genre can be– how can we alter our notions of reality when confronted by new ideas in a piece of fiction? Though some will outright not buy into what occurs in Her, I imagine there will be some who will walk away questioning the concepts of love and relationships. I am one of those people.

Her is not easy to digest in just one viewing. There are a number of ideas that are layered with more depth than just being a bunch of proposed questions. As soon as I’d begin to think of the implications of one of the themes Spike Jonze was presenting, he’d move on to something equally fascinating. A portion of viewers will mistake Her for satire, but though there are a number of laughs, I don’t believe Jonze is simply poking fun at how we depend and interact with technology.

If Her were to go too far in the direction of satire, the whole thing would come apart. Furthermore, if the performances weren’t genuine, it’d become difficult to buy into a person falling in love with an operating system. There was some discussion on the internet about Scarlett Johansson being disqualified for an Oscar nomination in the best Supporting Actress character. Regardless of how silly award shows can be, it amazes me that what she accomplished isn’t being considered as a performance. I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best work Scarlett Johansson’s ever done, and that is in no way a slight to the fact that she’s not once on screen in Her.

Equally as important is Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly. Phoenix plays him as a man who is always vulnerable, but never pathetic or creepy (even with the mustache). Is it loneliness and the inability to reconnect with people that drives him to the operating system? Twombly spends his working days crafting personalized letters for other people in relationships. Jonze is playing with the idea of how we connect emotionally, and the juxtaposition between Twombly’s excellence at his job and his disdain for it is fascinating. Phoenix is one of the finest actors of his generation, and this is yet another example of what he’s capable of.

The source of Theodore’s heartbreak is his impending divorce from his wife Katherine. Through montages and flashbacks, we see the sweetest parts of their times together. Jonze bathes these scenes with an abundance of sunshine, as that’s how we tend to color the good times of past relationships. As we return to the present, we see the toll that a bad breakup has taken on Theodore. He seems to be at a distance from everyone around him. When he first tries the operating system, he’s both curious and distant as well, and doesn’t seem to have any expectations past getting rid of his loneliness. As his relationship with Samantha evolves, she becomes a companion, challenging his shortcomings while breathing life back into him.
Jonze establishes a future of sort in which we as people continue to further lean on technology to get through our day. He makes it so that it’s plausible that someone in Twombly’s position would explore that route. As we see in a handful of scenes, he’s not the only one– many people are walking around, having some type of relationship with their operating system. I check my emails on my iPhone incessantly. The device is constantly either in my hand or my pocket, and when it’s not there, it’s by me as I sleep. Not once have I thought of it as anything more than a device. But for all my dependency on it, what if it was more than that? It’s one of the many facets of Her that is so interesting. I’m not claiming it will make you rethink your relationship with your various types of hardware, but Her at least raises enough interesting points to merit a conversation about where we go with technology. What if at some point they come to depend on us?

At first I wasn’t particularly keen on Arcade Fire’s score (for full disclosure, they are one of my favorite bands). As Her progressed, I began enjoying it more. At no point is it over-sentimental or manipulative. Speaking of music, I thoroughly enjoyed Theodore requesting his music player to play his melancholy song. It was a minor scene, but it sets the stage for how these programmed computers indulge our requests and help us deal with emotions.

In less capable hands, we’d be presented the idea of a program machine helping a human better understand themselves, but Jonze doesn’t stop there. Instead, he explores the concept of love without physical interaction. Her asks if its possible, and I don’t believe Jonze definitively commits to one answer or the other. Love is something already difficult to describe, find and understand, which makes Her all the more impressive for how it successfully throws another equation into the mix of the conversation.

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2 comments
  1. ruth said:

    Great review man!! I like what you said here “A portion of viewers will mistake Her for satire, but though there are a number of laughs, I don’t believe Jonze is simply poking fun at how we depend and interact with technology.” You’re right, the story and performances felt genuine to me and it’s an interesting character study as well as exploration of humanity’s interaction with technology that’s increasingly becoming more *intrusive* in our lives, for better or worse.

    Amen about what you said about Scarlett. I posted a question after watching the film that Scarlett’s performance warrants some kind of award, maybe even have a separate voice acting category as she did a phenomenal job. And this coming from someone who’s usually not a huge fan of hers.

  2. jdym00 said:

    I think it’s the same thing as Andy Serkis in The Rise of the Planets of the Apes. He totally deserved recognition, and he didn’t get any for that performance. The Academy likely isn’t going to evolve anytime soon on this issue and its unfortunate.

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