Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.
Her scared me a little bit. It scared me because this is a movie I’m very much supposed to like. There’s a great deal of pressure on the film in a situation like this, and pressure on me. What if this highly-acclaimed film that should be right in the wheelhouse of my sensibilities turns out to be complete crap? If I’m one of the only people who turns out to dislike a movie with this much acclaim, I run the risk of being “that guy” who just hated the movie because he wanted to be different from all of the other reviewers. I was very much interested in the film, but it also sat on my shelf for long enough that I had to renew it from the library. There’s that nervousness, almost like the nervousness of a new relationship with a film like this one.
I also figure that I’m probably the last one of my regular readers to see Her, which makes the plot summary far less important than it normally would be. I’ll try to keep this short and basic. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is perhaps the world’s loneliest man. His marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) is at an end, although he is hesitating on signing the papers to finalize it. His job is writing heartfelt letters for people unwilling or unable to write their own letters. Unable to verbalize his own emotional state, Theodore merely seems to exist, devoid of human contact and experiencing the world entirely through his electronic devices.
Things change when Theodore purchases a new operating system for his computer. The OS names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is vibrant, interesting, and curious about the world. Theodore finds himself fascinated with her, and the two start to figure each other out. And since this is a Spike Jonze film, Theodore soon becomes fascinated and infatuated with her and soon begins to fall in love with her.
It can’t just be that simple, of course, and the third act of the film loses me some because it feels unnecessary and not really like it matters to the point of the film. The movie takes a very strange turn in the last half hour to 45 minutes. This involves Samantha finding a sexual surrogate to essentially be her body in the relationship—she talks, and the body acts with Theodore. And then there’s a whole revelation of Samantha’s involvement with a group of other OSes that simply feels off the point.
The two main performances here are Phoenix and Johansson, of course, and both are excellent. Phoenix is required to carry most of the movie himself physically; he is frequently alone on camera. It’s just him, and he needs to be compelling and frequently is. Similarly, while Phoenix is the physical manifestation of the film, it is Johansson’s voice that similarly needs to carry the film for us; she is in many ways the most compelling character for us to interact with. On paper, it really doesn’t seem like it should work, and yet it all does.
There’s a solid, albeit short performance from Rooney Mara here as Theodore’s ex-wife. I also liked Amy Adams in this. She plays Theodore’s friend Amy, an old girlfriend who has remained a friend, and who separates from her husband mid-way through the film. Amy goes through her own relationship crisis and also bonds with an OS, which allows her a great deal of perspective on Theodore’s situation with Samantha.
Her is the sort of science fiction movie that takes place five minutes in the future, and it works because of that. There’s just enough future her to make it a touch unbelievable but with enough reality to make it work. This is not something that would work set in the past because of the necessary technology. Set two hundred years in the future, Her would lose a great deal of the human connection that a film like this requires.
The basic theme of Her is not difficult to spot; it’s evident in the first couple of minutes of seeing Theodore’s life and lonely existence. The real question is what it means. There are probably as many ways to interpret Her as there are people who have seen it. From my perspective, the film is one of connection and disconnection in the modern world. Theodore, at the start of the film, is disconnected from the people around him. He is able to interact with the world only through devices. Ultimately, it’s a device that causes him to reconnect to the world. There’s a moral there, of course, and it’s one better experienced than explained.
Her is a film that perhaps cannot be explained in words but can only be understood on an emotional level. Like all of the best science fiction, Her explores the question of humanity and what it means to be human. I was probably right to be worried about it; the best stories are the ones that challenge us, and Her is a challenge in the best way possible.
Why to watch Her: Scarlett Johansson makes the best case for Best Vocal Performance as an Oscar category in film history.
Why not to watch: I can imagine a lot of people with moral qualms about the romance aspect.