In writer/director Spike Jonze’s latest film Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore. With a divorce looming, Theodore finds himself forming an unexpected bond with new computer operating system OS1, who goes by Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is programmed to learn, so she’s discovering the world as Theodore and her work out how their relationship could work. Running alongside his relationship, Theodore observes the difficulties his friend Amy is experiencing in hers.
As a plot synopsis, that doesn’t quite capture what happens in Her. It’s not really a film that lends itself to a neat summary, nor is it one you want to read much about before seeing. In fact, if you want a quick is it good or not, it’s terrific, and feel free to come back and read the rest after you’ve seen it as I’ll be including some spoilers.
Her is a flawed film. Perhaps the most conventional thing about it is that it’s too long. 20 or so of the last 30 minutes are spent exploring a part of the story that was less interesting, for me, which deflates the film a little and gives it this feeling of being extended too far.
Still, now that we’ve got the synopsis and boring complainy bit out of the way, let’s get into what’s so brilliant about Her.
My favourite thing about Jonze’s film is the positive attitude it takes towards its subject. Relationships that involve interaction through computers and technology are usually conveyed to us as something to fear. Internet meet-ups are a common starting point for modern horror films and were the focus of creepy docu-maybe Catfish. Cinema’s good robot to evil robot ratio is skewed heavily towards the evil robots. In Her, we’re never given any reason to distrust Samantha, the OS Theodore falls in love with. Rather, she’s presented to us as a constantly developing, interesting character, albeit one we can’t see.
It would have been easy, too, to offer a more cynical view of the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, given the setup of the characters. Theodore is quite an isolated character and is dealing with an impending divorce. He’s in a position of power over Samantha, as she is, at least to begin with, a tool he has purchased. The obvious direction for the story to go in would be for him to use Samantha as a crutch to move on. What we actually get is a relationship that feels genuine and authentic. I think that’s quite bold; to present something that people can be very cynical about as genuine. At no point during Her does the bond between Theodore and Samantha feel unreal, and the problems they experience feel organic.
Most of the characters in the film are accepting and open minded of the relationship, which is also great, because it means that the Theodore doesn’t feel that he has to justify anything to either them or the audience. We’re left to decide whether we believe it or not ourselves (and it’s so effective I can’t see not believing it). By the time he’s challenged that this is weird, a way into the film, I was so invested in the relationship that I was complicit in any weirdness that had taken place.
Jonze offers us a nice parallel to the main theme of the film with Theodore’s job. During the day, Theodore works for ‘beautiful handwritten letters.com’, where, using a computer with a ‘handwriting’ font, he writes personal letters for people. Again, it would be easy to present this as a use of technology to synthesise sentiment. Theodore, though, feels connected to the people he writes letters for. In some instances, he’s been working with the same clients for years, and is excited to be involved in their lives and their special occasions. He’s able to use his abilities to help people articulate sentiment, which can be incredibly difficult to do. It’s another great example of the positivity with which Jonze approaches his subject.
Another thing that sells Her is the performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Likable, funny, vulnerable and sporting one of the finest moustaches to grace a cinema screen in some time, Phoenix in the role of Theodore absolutely works. There isn’t a weak link amongst the cast. Amy Adams is as good as Amy Adams always is. Scarlet Johansson is perfectly cast as Samantha. In smaller, supporting roles we get Chris Pratt and Rooney Mara, who are great and should be in everything.
The film also features a great score from the band Arcade Fire. The cinematography is brilliant, particularly the sunny, bouncy scenes where Theodore and Samantha are falling in love. Every element ties into the film so well. While it’s emotionally involved, it’s also quite a bright, light film, with some very funny scenes.
Readers of this site are also likely to enjoy the presence of some sci-fi elements, not just in the technology at the centre of the plot but also in the production design. Science fiction is present in the scenery and the details that populate Her.
Her, then, is not a perfect a film, but it really is a very good one. A refreshing, inventive and enthusiastic romance that’s well worth taking the time to see.
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