HER Review: Love Bytes
I’ve been on Twitter since April 2011. During my near-three years and 11,000+ tweets on the social networking site, I’ve enjoyed friendships of varying depths, just as if I had met the same folks at school or at work or in some other flesh-and-blood social environment. Some friends I chat with occasionally, other friends I’ve become closer with and connected with via platforms like Facebook and Words With Friends, and with a select few I’ve exchanged emails, texts, Christmas gifts, family pictures, and so on. There are even friends I’ve lost – not to death, just to other circumstances that end friendships. I’ve never experienced an online romance, but I would imagine that if I weren’t married, that probably would have happened too (at least once).
This is the way it works now; screen-to-screen is the new face-to-face. Traditional relationships aren’t a thing of the past, they are simply part of the evolving way we interact as members of society. In writer/director Spike Jonze‘s Her, the protagonist finds himself in a traditional romantic relationship with a woman, with the modern slant of having the relationship exist completely online, but with the (not too distant) futuristic twist of making the woman not an online personification, but making the woman the Operating System itself.
Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), a man soon to be divorced from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), lives in relative solitude. His job requires little interaction with others, he only sees old friends (including Amy, played by Amy Adams) when he bumps into them at the elevator in their apartment building, and he has no romantic pursuits. With no structure in his life, Theodore is enticed by a new Operating System that promises to not only get him organized, but to serve him across all of his devices and to evolve as he evolves so that it will continue to meet his needs. When he installs the OS and answers a few quick questions, Samantha is … well, let’s just say Samantha is born.
Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is less OS and more AI – an amalgam of billions of bits of information that people experience over their lifetimes, making her the closest thing to human that a non-human can be. After some early suspicion (and disbelief) from Theodore, he hits it off well with his new OS, and she becomes his friend and Girl Friday. But as time passes and the two grow closer, they begin a romantic relationship that takes a path unlike any other.
The genius of Her is not so much in what Spike Jonze the director does with the film, although he does an excellent job. No, the real genius lies in the concept and the characters that Spike Jonze the writer creates for the film. It all starts with Theodore and the believability that this could happen to him.
The obvious is that Theodore is still in emotional pain from the loss of his marriage, and that entering into a virtual relationship is the safest thing for him. (Even in advance of his involvement with Samantha, there is a humorous phone sex scene that underscores Theodore’s need for emotional distance, even when physical needs must be met.) More subtle, though, is that all of Theodore’s interactions are virtual: he plays a life-size 3D video game where he and the characters interact; he directs his computer to play songs or read email or write email; he has made a career out of writing letters to people on behalf of others who cannot express themselves on the printed page. This is the most clever bit of all, as he has written for some of these people for so long, he knows little details about their past in current writings – they epitomize virtual relationships.
Take away the fact that Samantha is just a voice … wait. About that. Samantha is always just a voice, and she sees the world though the camera lens of Theodore’s smartphone. She is never given a face. There is never a moment where she considers whipping up a 3D image of what she wants to look like and then designing a machine that makes her “human” (and looking like ScarJo). There isn’t a moment where she thinks maybe her digital self could somehow be implanted into the brain of a living woman. (There is, however, a brilliant scene involving a physical surrogate that is a highlight of the film.) None of those sci-fi scenarios are even played for laughs, let alone taken seriously, and it’s a shrewd decision by Jonze. It makes the love story more believable because what is happening, while a stretch, isn’t fantastical; it’s firmly based in near-future reality, not distant-future fantasy.
Okay. Now take away the fact that Samantha is just a voice and what you have is the most classic of love stories: Boy meets Girl, Boy gets Girl, Boy evolves, Girl evolves, Boy may or may not lose Girl or vice versa. It really is that simple, but to get into details would be to spoil some things, and I don’t want to do that. Suffice it to say that even though the Girl in this equation is an OS, I still found myself watching their relationship grow and change and thinking at times, “Yeah, I’ve been in relationships where that happened.” That’s how based in reality their relationship is.
What I think is most clever about the story, though, is how it not only avoids the pitfalls of something closer to traditional sci-fi, but how it portrays society. Rather than make Theodore the lone OS-loving freak in the world, trying to convince everyone that he isn’t weird (keeping the focus on the relationship, not the peripheral drama that can come with it) , the story instead references how other people are doing the same thing – becoming involved with their Operating Systems. Some relationships are like Theodore and Samantha’s while others are more platonic and so on, but becoming emotionally involved with an OS becomes a societal norm. It’s the ultimate mixed relationship for the Internet Generation.
The supporting cast is fine. Chris Pratt is good as Theodore’s only friend at work and Olivia Wilde (as a blind date for Theodore before things with Samantha get serious) seems to be only utilizing her sex appeal until the last moments of her scene with Phoenix, when she becomes remarkably realistic as one of those girls that goes from just-met-you to let’s-take-this-thing-very-seriously in about the length of time it takes to have a first date. At the next level, Adams makes a very nice female friend for Theodore to talk to. This film, however, is not about them; it’s about Phoenix and Johansson.
Johannson’s performance makes an excellent companion piece to Robert Redford‘s performance in this year’s All Is Lost. Whereas Redford had no dialogue and had to be convincing with only physical actions and facial expressions, Johansson has no physical presence at all to fall back on – not even her beauty. Instead she must use every vocal inflection and affectation she has to prove everything from the self-wonder of her own newness to her burning desire to learn, and from her worry about their relationship path to her grand plans for the future. She does it all so very convincingly. It’s a harder sell than even animated vocal work because there is still a visual component to animation; here she has none but she doesn’t need it.
As for Phoenix, he is an artist with a mastery of his instrument. To make another Redford comparison, Phoenix is alone for most of the film. Yes, he has some scenes with others, but in a majority of his scenes, he is forced to interact with nothing but a voice. He is brilliant, with a full range of complex emotions laid bare, as well as a collection of facial tics that Jonze’s pore-counting close-ups spotlight. It’s one of the great performances of the year.
Her is a romantic drama from Hollywood’s Golden Age, set in a time that is closer to tomorrow than we probably realize, with a meet-cute for the tech-set. It is slightly sluggish in spots, but those spots never last long, and the characters that Jonze and Phoenix and Johansson give us – whether flesh-and-blood or 1s-and-0s – are characters to root for and believe in.