Spike Jonze is known for his quirky comedies about the human condition. From "Being John Malkovich" to "Where the Wild Things Are," with Jonze, you know you’re going to get something special and unusual.
The same can be said for his latest offering, the sci-fi /comedy/drama/romance hybrid, "Her." Starring Joaquin Phoenix, the film takes place in the not-too-distant future where an OS (operating system) has been introduced that can be adapted to your own personality and needs, and will also learn and grow as you use it. Basically, it can think for itself, and by doing so, it also learns emotion.
Sad sack Theodore decides to purchase this one day on the way home from his job at "beautifulhandwrittenletters.com", where he writes letters for people who can’t seem to find the right words to say. He has just gone through a break-up with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and has been holding off on the divorce. Instead, he spends his days going from work to home with barely any investment in the world around him.
And what a world it is. While he doesn’t focus on it, Jonze has created a soon to be future that looks and feels authentic. Video games are projected into the middle of a room and frequently talk back to the players. Most electronics are touch screen and fully automated. And his new OS (who names herself "Samantha" after reading a book of baby names in tenths of a second) can take care of most things in his life, from cleaning out thousands of emails in seconds, to finding him a date and making reservations. All without even touching a button. It is here that Jonze establishes a future that seems to be all about convenience, but also about losing one’s ability to be social.
Indeed, Theodore is at his job writing letters for other people - they can’t even be bothered to handle their own emotional relationships. Others turn to video games that are so immersive that it gives you the ability to be in another world altogether. So it’s no surprise that when Theodore’s OS Samantha starts relating to him on a personal level, that Theodore -- being something of an introvert -- is able to connect with her.
Day by day the two get more acquainted, and Samantha begins to feel more and more like a real person. While some audience members might scoff at this notion, over 40 million people alone have tried online dating, and a large percentage of them have kept that relationship in cyberspace. So without physical interaction, what is the difference between dating an OS and a person you have never met? Because this artificially intelligent creation can think for herself, can she be regarded as less human? Especially when she starts to question her own existence? She asks questions like "Are these feelings real? Or just data that programmers have given me?" It’s a fair question. And surely the fact that she asked it in the first place proves that she is evolving on her own.
With that information, "Her" becomes a love story like no other. And, oddly, despite its strange set up, it’s very relatable. Theodore needs someone to get him out of his skin and to treat him as a priority. Early on he’s asked by the OS set-up what his relationship with his mother was like, and he admits that when she asks about him, it becomes more about her. So he is presented with an OS that will ask about him and make his life just as important as hers. Who wouldn’t want a relationship where you could program in your needs and then get a cognitive being in return?
But as Samantha grows, the relationship takes a few more turns and things get a bit more complicated -- though not in a standard rom-com way. While there is jealousy, outside problems, and a pulling apart, it doesn’t fall victim to the usual clichés. This is what makes "Her" so special.
Phoenix is charming and relatable. He is in every scene and carries the film on his shoulders from start to finish. The supporting cast do well in smaller roles, including Chris Pratt as a co-worker of Theodore’s, and Amy Adams as a long-time friend. But it is Scarlett Johannson that is the surprise. Mostly because this could have been a simple affair for her, since her physical body is never seen onscreen. Through her voice alone, we fall in love with her just as Theodore does. We feel her excitement, curiosity, joy, confusion, frustration and pain through the vocal performance. She’s remarkable.
As stated, the production design by K.K. Barrett is stunning and gives us a realistically realized future that is slick and clean, but looks lived in. Even the clothing styles (by Casey Storm) are given attention. Theodore wears high-waisted pants (not attractive) and while you may at first think it’s a character quirk, you see them on many of the extras, which makes it clear that this is a fashion trend. That attention to detail is what makes this movie even more special, especially when it’s not a focus. It is just a part of the world that’s been engineered for us.
Truth be told, the film is too long and really starts to lose steam by the last half hour. There is a repetitiveness to some of the scenes that grows tiresome. That said, I’ll take a lengthy original compelling story any day over a bunch of robots fighting in a city street for three hours.