Coming into this movie with only a vague idea of what the premise is, I thought, and I’m pretty certain most had the same thought, that the movie would revolve around obsession with technology and the same old premise that people are growing more and more anti-social as technology evolves. To a small extent, the film does touch on this, but to an immensely greater extent, it was so much more. The true beauty of Her is that the ideas in the film are as complex as Samantha herself becomes and is moving and touching, with no criticism of the characters involved. They are who they are, as our protagonists slowly come to understand throughout the story.
The plot is centered around Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix… the lawyer in me wants to make a joke about the name Twombly, but that would’ve been too obscure, even for me). Theodore has separated form his wife and is in the process of signing divorce papers, which he has so far avoided doing. He also works for a company that writes letters for people to send to other people, able to beautifully express the thoughts that individually could not express to their own satisfaction. While strolling through stores, he comes across OS1, a new, artificially intelligent operating system that designs its own personality to match your own needs and personality; she calls herself Samantha.
Samantha starts off what seems like a friendly office assistant, except with no body. She’s nice, she’s friendly, she’s funny, she can organize the fuck out of eight thousand emails. But she’s also evolving. She becomes a true companion for Theodore, who speaks to her through an earpiece that he’s always wearing, and let’s her see the world through a small camera phone he carries around in his breast pocket. When things don’t work out with the first woman he’s gone out with since he split with his wife, things heat up between him and Samantha, who is constantly growing in her ability to express emotions and her curiosity of the world. They end up dating to the extent that a person can date an operating system. He takes her out, they go on double dates with other couples, they have sex … sort of. There are some rocky moments in the relationship as they try to adjust to the fact that one of them is not a living person, his ex-wife certainly doesn’t accept the relationship as real, claiming that he dates a computer because he can’t handle the complexities of a real relationship. She’s wrong of course, Samantha’s range of emotion makes her as real to the audience as she was for Theodore. And Theodore isn’t alone, we learn through Amy (Amy Adams) that other people have relationships with their OSs as well. Some are just friends, some are also dating, and some people try to date other people’s OSs. But, as is inevitable when a guy dates an OS with limitless computing power, she expands beyond just him, starts communicating with other artificially intelligent OSs and eventually leaves him, but not before professing that she still loves him. Though heartbroken, Theodore has changed as well, and is able to move on and live his life again in a way that he couldn’t before, because of his divorce. Samantha changes him as much as he did her, and they both matured as beings because of each other.
At the end of the film we’re left to wonder how real his relationship was. He loved her, there’s no question. She loved him, there’s also no question. Except that there is. Every now and then, in the back of my mind it would click in my head “she’s still just software, and it’s odd that she can feel this much, and it’s odder that Theodore is going through true emotional pain when he deals with their relationship issues.” When their relationship is on the rocks, the tone of the film changes, focusing heavily on shots of people talking to their phones, not making clear whether a live person is on the other end. When their relationship is strong, the scenes are filled with other loving couples having as much fun together as Theodore does with Samantha. I truly don’t believe that Spike Jonze intends for us to criticize Theodore for the choices he made, merely to experience his life and his relationship the way that he does. There are even times when Theodore reminds himself and Samantha that she’s not a person, which are some of the most emotional scenes in the film. This is the magic that Spike Jonze has made for us.
Spike Jonze doesn’t get all the credit however. I cannot end this review without talking about some of the most brilliant acting I’ve seen this year. To call Joaquin Phoenix’s performance a powerhouse wouldn’t do his work justice. This role, more than any other, could have gone horribly wrong for another actor. It’s easy to see how this character could be pitied or criticized if the performance were any different, but what Phoenix did here was nothing short of perfection. We must also give credit to Scarlett Johansson, whose voice acting was only second to Phoenix’s performance. Once her character truly gets going, and changes from a clever, computerized office assistant, to basically a full consciousness, we as an audience almost forget at times that Samantha isn’t in fact human. Johansson adds so much personality to Samantha with her voice that Samantha actually becomes a character we care about, and not just a tool that Theodore has become obsessed with. I also need to give credit to Amy Adams. First, a huge kudos to her for two knockout performances in both Her and in American Hustle. She’s just had an awesome year for herself. Adams’ character, which she plays wonderfully, gives is the other side of the coin to relationships. While Theodore’s relationship with Samantha thrives, Amy’s relationship with Charles dwindles and breaks. She also helps us validate our confirmation of Theodore’s relationship when she gets her own OS friend, a female OS, who helps Amy get passed her break up with Charles. Adams presents us with a character who clings to a relationship she thinks she should be in, though it’s made obvious to us how poor the relationship is, and it’s only after a last-straw type fight, and Amy befriending her own AI that she is able to also change and move on by the end of the film.
I won’t prattle on any longer, but I’ll just end with saying that the film was wondrous and unexpected, and everything I could hope for in a Spike Jonze film.