Synopsis: Set in the Los Angeles of the slight future, “Her” follows Theodore Twombly, a complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people. Heartbroken after the end of a long relationship, he becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system, which promises to be an intuitive entity in its own right, individual to each user. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet “Samantha,” a bright, female voice, who is insightful, sensitive and surprisingly funny. As her needs and desires grow, in tandem with his own, their friendship deepens into an eventual love for each other.
From the unique perspective of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Spike Jonze comes an original love story that explores the evolving nature—and the risks—of intimacy in the modern world.
eyelights: the screenplay. Joaquin Phoenix. Scarlett Johansson.
eyesores: the unnecessarily dramatic final act.
“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”
‘Her’ is a film about loneliness, isolation and connection. It’s also a love story. It’s the story of a professional personal letter writer who, on the cusp of finalizing his divorce from his childhood sweetheart, buys an operating system for his computer whose lifelike A.I. is so sophisticated that its begins to fill the void that he has had in his life -and in himself- for far too long.
The picture is set in 2025, in Los Angeles (the cityscapes were actually shot in Shanghai). It is clean, but sterile in many ways. People mostly wander about on their own, all the while communicating with others on personal earpieces. There’s a sense of disconnection, if not loneliness, in this socially-impoverished environment – one or two steps removed from our own.
What struck me was that, despite being visually and emotionally antiseptic, the world of “Her” wasn’t depressing, per se. If anything, it felt inorganic, lacking life. Thus it was completely natural that our protagonist, Theodore, would feel lost in the midst of it all – not just because of the disintegration of his marriage, but because meaningful interaction and human connection is so difficult there.
For lack of anything else, Theodore gets the most satisfaction out of his work, out of writing extremely personal letters for people who are either unable to express themselves, too busy, or too lazy. In writing these letters, he is able to express his deepest emotions and live vicariously through them (some of his clients are long-term ones, so he easily can be intimate). In so doing, he is one of the firm’s best writers.
However, his personal life is barren. Aside from a now-married college friend whom he once briefly dated, and who lives in the same building, he appears to have no other ties – no friends, not even family. He spends his evenings playing a holographic video game featuring a crude little amorphous creature. That is what he interacts with. Then he goes to bed, gets up and goes to work.
Honestly, ‘Her’ touched on my sorest points. Although my life is hardly barren like Theodore’s, the alienation he feels is something I could easily relate to. As well, I looked at the technologically connected yet emotionally disconnected world he lives in and could see our future in it. Frankly, it’s not a future that I want to experience: I want to feel more connected, not less.
I wept. I just couldn’t stop myself.
It didn’t help that I had recently been experiencing personal problems and their impact lingered. This accentuated the loneliness, the emotional isolation. And seeing the growing interconnection between Theodore and Samantha, his O.S., the magic between them, made me long for closeness even more.
I realize that this is a silver screen dream, and that life changes people over time, but the tenderness and complicity between Theodore and Samantha was all I would ever want to emotionally feel in a relationship – and have felt at various times in my life, including now, but haven’t been able to sustain.
The pair were two entities who had found their “other” and grew together. To me, it was absolutely beautiful to watch; it was the peak of all my aspirations. For this new couple, it was fresh, new, invigorating, inspiring, exciting, fulfilling, all-encompassing. Basically, it was the dream given life on screen.
I wept some more.
To think that ‘Her’ is a picture that consists mostly of one person and a voice; with some minor exceptions, Theodore was by himself and was in conversation with Samantha through his earpiece. One person and a voice. And yet it works. And it’s actually entertaining.
The picture is peppered with all sorts of little moments to keep it going, of course. Still, it’s not an action-based film and the dialogues were undoubtedly the core of the picture. Thankfully, writer-director Spike Jonze found the right cast for the parts of Theodore and Samantha:
- I’m no great fan of Joaquim Phoenix, but he was terrific most of the time. I still dislike it when he tries to look awe-struck because he looks goofy (much like he did in ‘To Die For’. eek.), and I find this extremely awkward. But these were blips on the radar in an otherwise superb near-one man show: he affected every other emotion extremely convincingly. He deserves any nomination he gets for it.
I loved that Jonze picked Phoenix instead of some pretty boy, as Hollywood tends to do. Joaquim Phoenix has an unusual look, particularly due to his gaze and his geeky smile, and he contributed to it here by being a bit disheveled and sporting a unsightly moustache. It didn’t help that Theodore’s fashion choices were limited, given that the future is resplendent with a mixture of ’60s and ’70s stylings.
- And say what you will about Scarlett Johansson, who plays Samantha, but she did a terrific job of voicing her. I’m not a huge fan of her either, particularly since she started glamming it up (I preferred her as an indie darling), but she did a fantastic job of bringing to life this artificial intelligence with only the sound of her voice: she uttered every tone and emotion pitch-perfectly. She also deserve all nominations for her part.
To think that she wasn’t the original actress. The film was shot with Samantha Morton as the O.S., but Jonze felt that something was not quite right – so he got Johansson to redo all of the dialogue. However, Jonze sought Morton’s blessing first. He also named the O.S. after her. I love Samantha Morton, and she may well have done a good job, but I can’t imagine anyone other than Johansson at this point.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
If I disliked anything about the picture, and there’s precious little, I hated that there had to be a dramatic finish to it. It’s such a cliché of love stories: something has to break up the couple’s bliss, create a rift. I understand the principle of the O.S. evolving and wanting to experience something more, but I didn’t think it was essential given that the core of the story is about growth and healing.
Actually, it felt like a contrived way to delve into the structure of relationships, by bringing up the subjects of long-distance relationships, polyamory, fidelity and trust. I loved that these issues were discussed, but they were all tossed in at the last minute, in a whirlwind of dramatic turmoil. There was an opportunity to have a more reflective discussion of these matters, but it got squandered.
I was also left incredulous during their sex scenes; that seemed convoluted to me. In what way did Samantha feel any of that? Perhaps there’s a way, but we’re left with no answers, only questions. Was she faking it? If so, why? If not, how? Why wasn’t Theodore curious about this? With phone/online sex, at least one has the impression that it’s truly mutual. But the O.S. doesn’t have a physical body, so there’s pretending.
One thing I rather liked, though, is that Theodore and Samantha’s relationship was accepted by the people around him; they were even invited on double dates with other couples. I loved that ‘Her’ essentially refused to judge the relationship, and valued it for what it was, not what it isn’t. It could have been played up for laughs, but the way Jonze put it together was such that it was sympathetic, not mocking.
Ultimately, even though it’s unconventional and inevitably disappointing, at the very least Theodore’s relationship with Samantha helped him move on from his last one. On a more optimistic note, one must highlight the fact that it helped him relive emotions he hadn’t felt in a tremendously long time – something he needed in order to reboot his life. So there is good that comes of it in the end.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Frankly, for a first-time script, Jonze did a marvelous job: ‘Her’ has depth, discussing relationships and the human desire for connection on so many levels. It also approaches the fluctuations in relationships (and their expiry dates) in a totally grounded way. This is not the saccharine, happily-ever-after Hollywood that we’re used to and it’s something that I wholly appreciated. It’s a rare pearl.
“Her” is a film that can’t truly be explained away; it’s a motion picture that you have to experience. And either you get it, or you don’t. Either it touches your heart, or it doesn’t. I highly doubt that there’s a middle ground here. For me, it might even be more potent as ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘ – it’s just that it lacks the magic and wizardry that makes the other so special.
Still, this is a remarkable achievement by Spike Jonze, a unique filmmaker who always finds a way to serve up something original. He may not be prolific, but he’s one to watch. His ‘Her’ is an extremely memorable film. I could have done without to the final contrivances, but the film’s emotional center is tender and affecting. I would recommend it to anyone interested in human behaviour and relationships.
There is nothing else like ‘Her’.
“The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love even more.”
Date of viewing: January 24, 2014