director Spike Jonze
Despite consistently good reviews, Spike Jonze’s Her didn’t excite me. Even from the movie poster of a wistful Joaquin Phoenix, who looks vaguely Tom Selleck-like, peering from the image, I wasn’t intrigued. The story of a man who falls in love with his talking OS (Operating System) seemed not exactly like a romp. Love stories aren’t entirely my bag.
But the film’s operating system is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, in a performance considered so good, local film critic Mick LaSalle suggested she be considered for an Oscar despite never appearing onscreen. Her physicality is part of her appeal, so again, this dampened my potential urge to see the film. But eventually, I thought, I should or might as well.
I was keenly surprised what an excellent film it was. Maybe I shouldn’t be. Jonze may not be a master auteur but his films have all been interesting at least: Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Where the Wild Things Are (2009). Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for how interesting this film was going to be: visually, emotionally, conceptually.
Visually it’s very neat. The color palettes are pinks and yellows and strangely modernist, this oh so near future. This is science fiction, but only prodded a bit beyond the now. There is a visual aesthetic that is really quite remarkable.
Conceptually, the ideas are about interpersonal life. Phoenix’s character Theodore works for a company that writes personal letters for people too busy or challenged to write their own. His work is considered great poetry and art but he essentially works as an emotional surrogate for humanity. It is into this divorced life his new OS appears, unique and truly imbued with artificial intelligence. Beyond intelligence and self-awareness, there is a true and real personality. And this is Scarlett Johansson.
He falls in love with her and her with him. And in this modern world of things, he is not alone in falling for this type of newly developed being. They have emotional ups and downs as any couple, share magical moments together, great intimacy, challenges, fights, struggles.
I don’t want to ruin it for you. So stop reading if you must. But eventually “Samantha” (Johansson)’s intelligence, being, and knowledge outgrow her form (or lack of form), as do the other OS’s imbued with knowledge and awareness and being. hyy There are analogues in relationships, where people change, grow and change, and move away from one another in their needs and development. But eventually it becomes a change for all artificially intelligent computer systems and they depart for another reality.
The emotional grip of the story is powerful, too. Jonze really succeeds in developing love story and relationship between Phoenix and his disembodied love interest. It has impact. It did for me, at least.
Jonze’s films have all contained aspects of a depressing or pessimistic view on life. At least in my readings of them. Even in the gentle hopeful moments of resolution and ending, there is something that I find quite depressing. I can deal with pessimism. Depressing is a variant emotional interpretation of the films. And Her has a melancholy to its heart, not necessarily resolved towards hope for humanity in the end, but rather the loss of love and change and transition in lives. What it means to be alive.
Really, I’m surprised how much I liked Her. I’ll be recommending it to friends.