Spike Jonze, the director of “Her,” is no stranger to the bizarre. His past films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” combine elements of fantasy, surrealism, and science fiction. His latest film, though, is perhaps the one that is most relatable to audiences. We have all felt a connection to our mobile devices, at least to some extent. “Her” is just taking that connection to an extreme. But underneath the hints of satire, “Her” is also a surprisingly believable love story, as well as a truly unique and existential look on just what it means to be human.
“Her” takes place in a future that is perhaps not too far away. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely, divorced man that works at a business called “Handwritten Letters”; formulating romantic letters for couples that don’t wish to write their own. He soon hears an announcement of the latest technological invention: an operating system (OS for short) that not only can interact and talk to you, but also has its own unique personality. Think Siri, but less monotoned. The OS is also directly connected to a bluetooth earpiece, so that she is always with you. Theodore receives one named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and he almost immediately takes a liking to her, to the point that he believes himself to be in love.
In this future world, everyone and everything is connected to our mobile devices. People wander down the streets, seemingly talking to themselves, staring at a tiny screen rather than at those around them. It is very similar to the world you see now. But with the addition of the artificially intelligent OS’s, it seems that people begin to get even more alienated from one another. The film is, then, a semi-realistic look at where our world will lead if we continue to become technologically advanced beyond our control.
But despite this agenda, Jonze never lets “Her” get too preachy. It is not so much a satire as it is a reflection on human emotion, especially that most important one of all, love. At one point, Samantha becomes sad, realizing that she only possesses the capacity to feel because she was programmed that way. But are humans any different? Really, we only developed emotions as a way of connecting with one another in order to procreate and keep the species going. But perhaps, as Jonze suggests, it is much more than that.
As a movie about a man that falls in love with a machine, “Her” does have its awkward moments, when you almost wonder if you are supposed to be touched by what is happening, or to instead laugh uncomfortably. It is an odd contention that a person could fall in love with something that is not real. But in this world, it is seen as perfectly normal. Theodore takes his OS out to the park, and sits her next to him while they listen to music; he goes out for a walk with friends, and brings her along as his significant other; and, in bed at night, alone, they discuss (and show) how deeply they feel for one another. It is a relationship like any other, complete with tender moments, arguments, fights, and through it all, unbridled passion. At times, you almost forget that Samantha is a computer.
Perhaps another reason that “Her” is believable is due to the moving portrayals from both Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Joaquin has proven, once again, that he is one of the best actors out there. After playing the role of an aggressive and unpredictable man in “The Master,” he has somehow pulled off the much more reserved, level-headed character of Theodore Twombly. Theodore is a man that calmly observes the beauty of the world around him, and although emotionally broken due to his divorce, remains charismatic and pleasant. And Scarlett Johansson has firmly made me believe that a performance could come simply from hearing a voice. She somehow pulls off the role of a computer that can think and feel, and is self-aware of itself. She laughs, jokes around, speaks her mind, gives curtly sarcastic remarks, and even feels jealous when Theodore talks to other women. I sincerely hope that she can be considered for an Academy Award for her “performance,” as it is truly one of the best of her career.
So, is “Her” a warning about our future, or is it an optimistic hope? After all, the artificially intelligent OS’s do not start to lash out against us once they become self-aware, such as in the world of “The Terminator” or “The Matrix.” Most of the time, they seem to have our best intentions in mind, existing to help us in our daily routines. But what happens when you make something so sophisticated that it can feel human emotions, and without the confines of our physical, organic selves, can continue to develop and adapt and grow? Is this where we as a species will eventually end up? It is, perhaps, a question that we will never fully answer. But if, like me, you have ever thought about it, “Her” is the film for you.