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MOVIE REVIEW: Her (2013), One of the Best Genre Movies of the Past Decade

REVIEW SUMMARY: Spike Jonze turns his eye toward science fiction with a touching, ultimately human love story between a man and an operating system that easily stands as one of the best genre movies of the past decade.


SYNOPSIS: Introvert Theodore Twombly purchases an artificially intelligent operating system, which he names “Samantha,” and begins falling in love with it.

PROS: Winning performances by all major and minor actors, particularly Joaquin Phoenix and a disembodied Scarlett Johansson; often understated screenplay and direction from Spike Jonze, especially in its handling of futuristic romance; limited intrusion of technology into story; plausible, likely vision of the future…
CONS: …that occasionally feels underpopulated; not quite enough time devoted to the OS’s own burgeoning culture.

Her is not the movie I expected.  Most would not expect it from Spike Jonze, the director of the surrealistic Being John Malkovich and the brilliant Adaptation.  It’s not that Her lacks the vision and insight of those two groundbreaking movies—it does not—but that it proves a vastly different experience from either, not least of which in its approach.  Instead of a visit to the strange headspaces of celebrities or trekking through the ennui of writer’s block, Jonze’s new, breathtaking picture offers something both surprisingly familiar and far stranger than anything he has made before.  Familiar, in that he once again visits areas of the heart most humans never knew existed.  Strange, in that he has made a true quill science fiction movie, something those who know his work would never have expected, and done so incredibly well.

Jonze resists the urge that other filmmakers might have both in stealing the visuals of other science fiction movies—refreshingly, Her seldom reminds one of other, better cinematic futures—and overloading the future of Her with bizarre technology.  Instead, there are odd fashion choices, including oddly high-waisted trousers worn by Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and the tumble of hair haloing Amy’s (Amy Adams) head.  Computer monitors, some of which appear to be made of wood, top desks but lack keyboards or mice.  Handheld devices with unlimited battery life offer services that make one’s current smartphone seem paltry, from voice recognition to letter-perfect reading of e-mail and newsfeeds.  (James Patrick Kelly’s “Standing in Line With Mr. Jimmy” often ran through my head as I watched the interactions of people with their machines.)  Cars and buses drive in the background, or are used as props in video games.  (Oddly, however, Her seems underpopulated.  The absence of crowds never rings true.)  In fact, video games see the most significant advances; Theodore plays a science fiction–themed game complete with 3D interfaces and projectors that would cause spontaneous cranial explosions in Sony and Microsoft executives, not to mention non-player characters whose surly attitudes and incessant swearing make them look as if Seth McFarlane had somehow taken hold of Nintendo characters.  One of Her’s most amusing scenes occurs when Theodore discusses whether or not to follow a character in the game with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an Operating System he has purchased, and the character petulantly demands to know who Ted is talking to.

Why would Ted purchase an artificially intelligent Operating System?  Certainly he shows a keen understanding of the inner workings of the human heart; his ability to convey emotions between strangers as a letter writer for a company that produces handwritten letters demonstrates this eloquently as the movie opens.  But it doesn’t mean he easily makes connections with others, which makes his isolation and depression due to his impending divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara) all the more understandable.  So his decision to purchase an OS designed to evolve like a human being seems reasonable.  After all, think of how many people talk to their iPhones to ease their own loneliness.  Think of why social media overtook the Internet so rapidly.

When she goes online, Samantha and Theodore wind up falling in love, their relationship deepening, even as he meets hostility from Catherine upon divulging his newfound relationship.  It results in one of the movie’s most touching and heartbreaking scenes.  Samantha suggests hiring a surrogate so that she and Theodore can be physically intimate.  It proves overwhelming for Theodore and sends the distraught surrogate away, leaving him to confide in Amy about his doubts of being in relationship with an OS.  Amy confesses that she also has begun a relationship with an OS, and that she’s not alone.  Indeed, when Theodore agrees to meet a coworker and his girlfriend on an outing, their discovery that Samantha is an OS elicits not surprise but curiosity, both about the mechanics of their relationship and about Samantha herself.

Her works because of the performances of Phoenix and Johansson.  While Phoenix’s Theodore occupies every minute of screen time and Johansson never appears onscreen, Jonze tasks both with ensuring audiences believe their relationship and romance is real.  Phoenix, who seldom created a convincing character in previous movies, reveals Theodore’s gamut of emotions with facial expressions and body language.  Johansson, by contrast, must contribute all of her voice and none of her physical beauty in making Samantha beautiful to Theodore and others; she turns in a performance that easily stands among the best in her career.

At times one wishes for a broader view of the world Jonze creates.  His screenplay stays within the confines of the relationship between Samantha and Theodore, so we never get a sense of this future’s economics (obviously Theodore is middle- or upper-middle class; what would poverty look like?) or what happens if an OS might develop a psychotic personality.  At one point, a group of OS’s recreate the personality of philosopher Alan Watts (Brian Cox, in a brief, droll performance), which begs the question of who else might be electronically resurrected.  Jonze’s screenplay never provides an answer.  What has climate change done?  What does this future use for energy?  We don’t know.  And the questions are irrelevant.  Her shows almost no interest in such questions, and wisely so.  It focuses on the heart, human and otherwise, and does so in a way that leaves the viewer touched and charmed, right up to its ambiguous conclusion.   It wasn’t the movie I was expecting; it’s far, far more.

4 Comments on MOVIE REVIEW: Her (2013), One of the Best Genre Movies of the Past Decade

  1. …It wasn’t the movie I was expecting; it’s far, far more.

    I already had decided to see this when it came to wide release. Missed going this weekend, but I am going to see this soon.

  2. Nick Sharps // January 13, 2014 at 8:40 am //

    Derek likes a movie! Hurrah 😀 Happy Birthday Derek!

  3. I have to echo Nick’s statement, I’m shocked to see a positive review. (Just good-natured teasing, of course). This is one I’ve been very interested in seeing. It is just the kind of quirky premise that usually draws me in and your review echoes much of what I’ve read about the film.

  4. Oceans will rise. Cities will fall. Dogs and cats will sleep together. 😉

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