Written and directed by Spike Jonze
Spike Jonze’s astonishing Her does three things exceptionally well. 1) It’s a smart science fiction film, providing a credible look at a near future where computers go beyond where they are now—our close and constant companions—to something else, something new. 2) Through an intimate look at two leading characters, it’s no less than an investigation into the nature of love and our need for connection. And 3) it works as an allegory, exploring how people tolerate (or not) unorthodox relationships.
If it did one of these things well, Her would have a shot at my list of the best films of the year. Doing all those things, I feel like no other movie this year had such ambition, nor hit its targets so solidly. So I’m calling this the very best movie I saw in 2013.
This year I also loved watching Black Mirror, an excellent and deeply disturbing TV series from the UK, written by Charlie Brooker. A science fiction anthology series in the vein of Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone, its currency is tech anxiety—this isn’t the future of hundreds of years from now, this is later this week, when our fascination with the networks and the new machines turns our lives upside down. It’s happening now.
Her is the closest thing I’ve seen to Brooker’s brilliant show, and in some ways supersedes it. Her is a story of inter-species love, if you can get your head around the idea of an operating system as its own life form. This is hard science fiction—the best kind, in other words—and it couldn’t be more about today and how we live.
Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore, a sweet, introverted guy who makes a living writing letters for people who struggle to communicate in relationships. I wondered if this was a likely service, something that might flourish in a near-future world, sort of a personalized Hallmark card-writing business? It felt like a bit of a writerly conceit, but I went along with it since so much of what follows seems so plausible.
Trying to adjust to the dissolussion of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore is a lonely guy with a spartan flat in a glass tower. He looks to the net for solace, eventually finding Samantha, a self-aware operating system. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha is curious, funny and charming. Theodore quickly finds his new computer friend working as an excellent personal assistant, making his work life and his personal life more efficient. From there it doesn’t take long for her to give him his self-esteem a boost as she encourages him to go on a date. With his smartphone in his breast pocket she takes Samantha with him places. They play video games together. And things, naturally, go even further.
Compared to the fraught relationship between Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams, unnecessarily de-glammed for the role) and her husband (Matt Letscher), the growing connection between this gentle, inward guy and a computer doesn’t seem so bad. Where it starts to have challenges is when she begins to feel insecure about not having a body, not being able to interact with him on a physical level.
What becomes fascinating is how Samantha changes. At first she’s just there to be a boon to Theodore, but when she starts to have her own wants and needs, things get more complicated.
People have been comparing the film in tone to Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’d go along with that. Her‘s science fiction concept is so likely, the conceit so familiar, it forces a humanist response to what we’re watching, just like Gondry’s modern classic.
There’s so much more here to enjoy, from the startling production design melding Los Angeles with Shanghai and Dubai, and both Phoenix and Johansson do some of their best work. Johansson is especially wonderful, considering you never actually see her.
So, make sure you go see Her with a cinepanion. There’ll be plenty to discuss afterwards. I can’t wait to go again.