Review by Daniel Rester
Seeing a Spike Jonze film is always a crazy pleasure. The director always brings more to the table than one expects, crafting singular achievements that are equal parts original and bizarre. His newest film, Her, is no exception. The film finds Jonze delivering his unique cinematic touches while also bringing a welcome bittersweet quality.
Her takes place in the near-future and follows the story of a man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). Theodore is a lonely man who makes a living out of crafting love letters for others, yet he can’t find love himself. He is in the middle of a divorce with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and struggles connecting with nearly everyone around him – even down to his long-time friend, Amy (Amy Adams).
Theodore’s life begins to look up when he decides to purchase a new operating system designed to adapt like a human being. The OS calls herself “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and Theodore soon makes strong connections with her. As their relationship grows and Samantha learns more and more, the two begin to fall in love.
The idea of artificial intelligence reaching into new territories, such as something like love, isn’t actually the most original thing in the world; there was even a film from 1984 called Electric Dreams that dealt with a computer in a romantic rivalry with a human. We’ve seen such boundary-stepping with these “other beings” in films such as Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, yet no film in this A.I. sub-genre of sci-fi has had the curious eye and soulfulness like that of Jonze’s film. While the initial ideas are interesting, it’s what Jonze actually does with them that makes Her so special.
With Her being Jonze’s first solo screenplay, he really delivers in terms of writing. The love story is intriguing, the characters are full of life, and the dialogue has a great spark. But Jonze goes even further. At nearly every turn he delivers thought-provoking messages about what humanity really means, and where it might be heading. Instead of sticking with one angle, Jonze examines many, pushing points that one may not expect – including many from the A.I.s’ perspectives. Simply put, this is amazing writing, full of pathos and innovation.
Jonze matches his writing with his direction. The film is a tad slow at times, but it’s always rewarding, so Jonze’s pacing issues can be forgiven. The director constantly provides little touches through his writing and visuals that really stick, from things like a ridiculous videogame to new-age chat room sex; many of these things seem like they will be real someday. Jonze and his technical team also manage to wow without ever overpowering the story. Everything from the music to the editing to the costumes to the production design to the cinematography flow together so well, meshing together to create a certain softness and beauty that is unusual for modern sci-fi.
Jonze also knows how to get the most out of his actors, tuning them towards honest emotional moments without diving into melodrama. Phoenix is stellar as Theodore, giving vulnerability and playfulness to the role that is unlike anything the actor has ever done. Mara and Adams are wonderful as well, matching Phoenix’s talent whenever they are on the screen. Olivia Wilde (as a blind date) and Jonze himself (as a videogame character) are good as well, both adding some humor to their scenes. But it is perhaps Johansson that comes of best.
Johansson does something with her performance as Samantha that is truly remarkable. With just her voice, the actress manages to make the audience feel a whole range of emotions for her character; she isn’t supported by any glossy animation or anything like that. The arc of the computer becoming “more human” just wouldn’t have worked as well without the power of Johansson’s performance here. It’s great work, and she helps make Samantha one of the more memorable A.I.s of her type in film since HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Her will be a film that many people look back on and hail as brilliant. It’s getting great reviews already, but something tells me it will be praised even more as the years roll along. This is because the movie manages to put human emotion under a magnifying glass while also displaying technology’s current and possible future effects on such emotion. Such is the ambition of Jonze as a filmmaker. And such is the reason why I may declare the film a masterpiece upon further viewings.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A)
MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual content, and brief graphic nudity).
Runtime: 2 hours and 6 minutes.