As technology has evolved and become increasingly integrated into seemingly every facet of our daily lives, there have been studies about how it makes people more lonely or narcissistic, or connected. Spike Jonze's Her takes a scientific Artificial Intelligence story and contemporary concerns over our dependence on technology and spins them into a surprising and touching film about technology and love.
In Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is reeling from his pending divorce from his childhood friend Catherine (Rooney Mara). While he works as a letter writer, creating hand-written, personalized letters to other people's loved ones, he feels disconnected himself, unsure of how to be open in a loving relationship. When he buys a new operating system, an AI assistant programed to evolve and develop a personality as their relationship grows, he's surprised by how human the voice on the line is. His OS, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is also surprised by her own capacity to grow and feel, especially as she starts to feel more human, despite her disembodied state. When Samantha and Theodore fall in love, their relationship tests each of their ideas about connection, love, and humanity, pushing each of them beyond their programming, so to speak.
Her takes the human-AI romance in a different direction than I anticipated. I will try not to spoil anything, but the way the story handles the romance between a human and a computer takes the characters beyond the normal trappings of stories that try to critique technology so that instead it invites the audience to think about different ways of disconnection between people. Technology is juts one part of a story that in many ways looks at how people grow apart or distance themselves from each other. It was an emotional experience, but, I think, an enriching one. Structurally, Her also works in such a way that it sets up.
The film takes place in the near future and the costume designers, set dressers, and art directors create a future that, unlike a lot of futuristic films, is pretty familiar but textured with odd little details. The fashion trends are an especially delightful part as the characters wear clothes that are like ours, but styled in a slightly frumpy, nerdy way—collars tucked under, pants worn very high around the waist and short around the ankle. The interfaces of technology are also similar enough to our own that you get the sense that this world very well could be a natural progression from our own. Spike Jonze manages to create a future that is odd enough to feel sci-fi but near enough that its problems seem close to home.
Along with the strong plot and beautiful direction, the acting in Her is outstanding. Joaquin Pheonix has been such an unusual, distant character of late and in this performance he balances his usual coldness or distance with a warmth and wonder that brings out Theodore's longing for connection and joy but also makes it pretty easy to see why he's so isolated. This sounds corny, but Scarlett Johansson's voice acting gives Samantha a soul. Even though she doesn't have a body, you can hear her eyes twinkle and her face fall as she experiences wonder and heartbreak on her journey toward "humanity." Amy Adams adds a level-headedness that helps ground the story in the connections to human-human relationships, keeping the focus from solely relating to human-OS relationships. Adams brings her characteristic charm, but also clearly portrays the evolution her character, Theodore's close friend, goes through in her own relationships.
Overall, Her is a refreshing take on AI sci-fi stories, thinking beyond conventional narratives about the relationship between people and technology and creating a nuanced picture of the near future. I rate it 4.5/5 stars.
Her was written and directed by Spike Jonze. It runs 126 minutes and is rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.