“Her” tells the story of a man who falls in love with a machine, which sounds like a set-up for an inventive film about how the human experience changes in the age of technology.
By Noah Gittell
“Her” tells the story of a man who falls in love with a machine, which sounds like a set-up for an inventive film about how the human experience changes in the age of technology. But that’s not “Her.” The new film by Spike Jonze could technically be called science fiction, but it is – at its core – an ordinary story of love and loss that has more in common with “Annie Hall” than “The Matrix.”
In one regard, “Her” stands nearly alone: it is one of a few movies about artificial intelligence that does not take the concept to its most terrifying conclusion, that machines who learn to think will eventually kill us. Movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Terminator” sprung from our fear over advancements in technology. Put simply, as we give more and more of our processes over to machines, we are, in a way, making ourselves less necessary. Most movies about artificial intelligence assume that machines that can think would decide that we don’t need to exist at all.
Lately, there have been more positive depictions of AI, like Tony Stark’s virtual butler Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) in the “Iron Man” movies, or the prosaically named but eminently helpful Robot in last year’s underrated “Robot & Frank.” Even those recent films that feature killer robots, like the “Transformers” series, usually depict a world in which there are both evil robots and good ones. This shifting cultural perspective indicates that we have, to a greater degree, accepted that technology will play an ever-increasing role in our lives.
“Her” takes this notion to its logical conclusion and imagines a relationship between man and machine that encompasses almost the entire experience of a romantic relationship between humans. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a depressive guy on the cusp of middle age who is reeling from a recent divorce. He meets a young, naïve girl, falls in love, and helps her grow, which makes him feel better, too. The only problem is that she eventually outgrows him, which puts their relationship into crisis. Of course, what makes their relationship unusual – even within the world of the film – is that she’s not a girl at all: she is a computer operating system that has been tailored to be the perfect partner for Theodore.
Is it a problem that the basic plot at times seems cribbed from any number of half-baked romantic comedies? Hardly. Rather, you will be delighted to find a science fiction film that does not use artificial intelligence to predict some sort of harrowing dystopian future. In a terrific vocal performance by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha is certainly not a cold, killing machine; nor is she purely benevolent, although, much like people seem to each other at the start of relationships, she seems that way at first.
Samantha is similar, however, to the machines in “The Matrix” or “The Terminator” in one crucial way: she causes our hero pain, lots of it. But the trauma she inflicts upon him is an ordinary kind, not dissimilar to the pain of his divorce, which he frequently talks about. Joaquin Phoenix captures the anguish of being in love in a performance that is all the more remarkable for its unusual circumstances: Phoenix is in most scenes by himself, playing to a voice on a machine. Jonze shoots Phoenix’s face in close-up, and it’s a testament to the actor’s abilities that the same face that was so angular and creased in last year’s “The Master” (also mostly shot in close-up) seems so soft and vulnerable here.
Still, watching the film is an odd experience, as something often seems amiss. The external details of the world Jonze depicts are so fantastic – the Los Angeles of the future will be filled with vibrant colors, post-hipster attire, and architecture that looks a lot like Beijing – that they contrast deeply with how pedestrian the actual relationship between Theodore and Samantha is. In this chasm, however, lies the point: No matter how much technology may change our day-to-day lives, the core experience of being human will remain constant. We will continue to love, lose, and try again. How you feel about “Her” may tell you more about yourself than about the film. And really: what more can you ask of art?
My Rating: See it in the Theater.