Released in 2013, Her has one of the more interesting genre taglines: it’s a sci-fi-rom-com-drama that also isn’t afraid to explore psychology and philosophy. For all that, I still will not say Her is a particularly ambitious movie, because at it’s heart it is a simple love story, and those are always the best kind of stories.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson, Her follows an everyday middle-aged man looking for love post-divorce. After finding himself unable to connect with people, Theodore (Phoenix) ends up falling for an artificial super-intelligence who calls herself Samantha (Johansson). What follows is an exploration of many questions surrounding A.I. and, naturally, humanity. This review will contain spoilers.
Joaquin Phoenix does a tremendous job carrying this film on his back. Though the story is about a relationship between two “people”, we only ever get to see one. In consequence, it is through Theodore that the audience experiences all the emotions of the film, from carefree love to crippling depression, and Phoenix’s performance is more than up to the task. He portrays the character so naturally and with such ease, that from the first few scenes it easy to be immersed in the film.
A likely reason for this success is how the character of Theodore is written. Though the movie takes place in the future, the character is dealing with something that anyone from any time period can relate to: he is lonely. Unable to come to terms with how his marriage fell apart, Theodore becomes passive and unwilling to connect with others, all in a misguided attempt to avoid hurting anyone and feeling pain again. The issue here is complex, and yet familiar. Who hasn’t had their heart broken? Who has never felt like they’ll be forever alone? It is because the themes are so simple that it is easy to become invested in the story.
The acting is but one reason why this all works. Another major reason is the camera work and the minimalist presentation. Channel Criswell does a fantastic job explaining of how Her accomplishes this (though I disagree with some of his other interpretations). In short, the movie’s visuals encourages us to see Theodore has a lonely and displaced man both in terms of romance and life. Every scene is expertly shot, using subtle inferences to remind us of Theodore’s reasons for sorrow and joy, and it is this efficiency that keeps us engaged and the film focused.
Okay, I’ve sat in front of my laptop trying to think of something I didn’t like about this film, and I got nothing. Well, there is one thing: this movie made me realize just how friggin’ lonely I am. I didn’t have a problem with that before, but Her is totally a propaganda movie for love and heartache!
I also wouldn’t be surprised if people complained that the movie felt slow. To me it didn’t have that problem because there was always something interesting to look at, but not everyone is into cinematic visuals. I would think that Phoenix’s acting and seeing his relationship with Samantha develop would more than make up for it, but you never know.
The Question of Love
What makes Her good is that it is willing to deal with a very hard question, but what makes it great is that it gives a reasonable and intuitive answer to that question. In the beginning you may think the question is “are robots capable of loving?” or “does a human-robot relationship count as love?”. Those are interesting questions in of themselves, but they are decoys, distractions that are indeed entertaining but not what writer and director Spike Jonze is interested in.
The real question Her is asking is “what is love?”, and maybe even “how do we recover from lost love?”. Though Samantha plays a key role in the plot, this movie is undeniably about humanity and human relationships.
Theodore only initiates a relationship with Samantha in order to escape isolation. He feels alienated from other human beings, because he is still feeling the sting of a very intense human relationship that fell through. Therein lies the cleverness of this film. It uses the surface plotline of aritificial intelligence in order to present a story about a guy looking for connection and meaning.
By the end of the film, we have our answer, and it’s an answer I am willing to agree with: humans can only find meaningful connections with other humans, and we can only move on when we face our past mistakes, own up to them, and learn from them. The film throws a curve ball by not cashing in on its identity as a sci-fi film about A.I.; it offers no moral arguments as to whether Samantha can be considered human, which was a wise decision. Instead, the movie reminds us that A.I. will inevitably become something greater than ourselves, and so it is meaningless for us to attempt to connect with them, and there is no argument of inferiority or superiority on either side. The film concludes on a very neutral and intuitive note, which was immensely satisfying. At the time of this review, the A.I. featured in Her does not exist in this world yet, and so it would’ve been somewhat foolish to enact an ending of “humans are wrong/right” or “A.I. is bad/A.I. are people too!”, because we just haven’t experienced it yet.
It’s a love story, but it isn’t. It’s a sci-fi film too, but it isn’t. This is a story about being human, and although it disguises itself with various layers, this fundamental theme pervades every scene and every line of dialogue, and that is why by credit roll I suspect most viewers will be left feeling distinctly human (and glad for it); that is, simultaneously sad, happy, melancholy, lovesick, etc.
This is a fantastic accomplishment for a film, and that is why Her can justifiably be called a work of art.
I recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys a good story. Whether you’re in love, out of love, dealing with something complicated, or still finding your way, Her will give you hope, and it just might help you realize what you have now, and what you’re capable of.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading!