Her (2013)

“Her” is an emotionally engaging film, bathed in smooth pastels, that cares little for soft blows, hitting home a multitude of profound messages, leaving its audience feeling both discouraged and hopelessly hopeful.

Director Spike Jonze (“Adaptation”, “Being John Malkovich”) takes us into a not so distant future, and—as the trailer promises—tells the love story of a man and his digital significant other. We meet Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) very early. He’s writing a thoughtful card via voice commands; voice commands which are years beyond Siri’s age. Theodore is employed as a personalized letter writer. At this point in the future, the art and meaningfulness of handwritten notes to others has been totally forgotten, and now you can hire someone to do the dirty work of being emotionally connected to another person.

Theodore is a strange, awkward man, who is in the midst of his gap year between a broken up marriage with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and single life. He refuses to sign his divorce papers. He just isn’t ready for it yet. He has flashbacks to his marriage on a regular basis, taking him out of his present friendships, of which he has only one or two. He’s lonely, so he calls suggestive late night hotline numbers. On one of his work commutes, he spots an ad for a new operating system. Curiosity. He makes the purchase and after a few survey questions, life is breathed into Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). She’s an artificial intelligence of course, yet while she seems to be naught but a lifeless, voice-operated, computer program, she learns and adapts over time. It’s quite advanced, yet we imagine this kind of technology is not too far away from our current reality. Theodore and Samantha hit it off, so to speak, and he travels everywhere with her. Before you know it, they are madly in love… Well, virtually speaking.

As a really weird, and even more quirky romantic comedy, sort of, “Her” works very well. There are fun voice over cameos from Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, yet you would never guess it was them behind the audio. A fun trick to possibly drive the audience into further confusion on the state of post-modern relationships. Amy Adams plays the cleverly named Amy, one of Theodore’s friends. She might be classified as a certified hipster, but she seems to be seeking not just romance, but a sacrificial love that her current relationship doesn’t provide. Chris Pratt is a receptionist at Theodore’s work. He’s possibly more socially awkward than Theodore, yet it’s all fun and games anyway.

This is all the set up, but I perceive the feeling that Jonze is after much more than a tight little storyline. While Theodore’s digital relationship seems to be the main focus of “Her”, there is a much stronger presence of Jonze’s thematic material. At the end of the day, “Her” feels like a character study of Twombly, but more than that, a character study of our society, and how we look at technology. We laugh and scoff at the silliness of Theodore’s ability to fall in love with a computer personality, but after we finish laughing, we return our gaze to our iPhones and inferior Android phones. See, even now, I put a personality of sorts into the two devices, proclaiming my iPhone to be superior to any other smart phone. We, as a North American culture (probably worldwide too, I imagine) have placed an importance on technology. We love  it. We complain that we would cease to exist without it.

Theodore has virtual, or cyber sex, with Samantha. It’s all through words. To them, it is quite the emotional endeavor, and to us, it is auditorily striking. We find by the end of the film however, that Samantha had thousands of emotional connections and relationships with countless other people. Theodore was one among the many. Earlier in the film, Theodore tries to enjoy a date with a woman, yet while she wanted a connection, Theodore craved casual sex. “Her” speaks not only to our post modern view of technology, but to the dangers and emptiness that casual sex and casual relationships bring. We live in a society dominated by sex-drenched media and advertising. While “Her” absolutely does not commend the Christian worldview, it does not shy away from the importance of commitment in relationships. How far must our society go to be pretty darn messed up? Spike Jonze says it’s not too far away. That’s pretty terrifying.

The seamlessness of communication between ones email box, web searching, and voice messaging in “Her” looks to be very attractive. As Theodore walks to work, or really anywhere for that matter, he is surrounded by a crowd of individuals just like him. No one walks with friends or family, no, they all wear similar headsets to his. A conversation with another human being seems a bit too out of the ordinary. Again, a reality not too far from ours.

I am not a huge Joaquin Phoenix fan, but I cannot deny how stellar of a performance this is. Phoenix is alarmingly convincing. Convincing enough to hopefully warn us of what the future may hold.

I had a conversation with a friend after watching “Her”. The wonders of film lie in the messages and life-change that it can communicate. The problem with film is that the actors involved can be exposed to the issues presented and possibly be changed for it. A few people might watch “Her” and maybe sell their smart phones, or at least become more cautious about the emotional aspect of their relationships. There is another group of movie goers who will talk a little about “Her” and think about changing their worldview, but probably won’t. Finally, there are those who either see “Her” or don’t, refuse to talk about the movie, and nothing has changed. Regardless, for most of these groups, let a few months pass, and they will probably have forgotten about it all anyway.

Alas, film is a difficult thing to achieve and do well. If anything, Jonze has done a phenomenal job of capturing our society and poking a little fun at it. If anything more, Jonze has predicted the future, yet will we care? I’m not sure. Check back with me in ten years. Heck, check back with me in five years!



2 thoughts on “Her (2013)

  1. Thanks for this insightful review. One of the best ones I’ve found on ‘Her’, a movie I found tremendously compelling.

    I felt your second-to-last paragraph was a bit muddled, though. You write that a problem with film is that the actors might change after being exposed to a film’s issues. Why is this a problem?

    Also, out of curiosity, did you see the film as a cautionary, burn-the-computers-at-the-stake tale against technology? Is it that technology will inevitably alienate us from one another, or is it possible to find a balance? The end of the film, where Adams rests her head on Phoenix’s shoulder, suggested to me that on an individual-to-individual basis, we are not doomed but can still make real human relationship our priority, if we value it deeply enough and are cognizant of the role that technology is playing in our lives. I think Phoenix played someone almost completely immersed in technology, yet the ending suggested that he too could be pulled back to the ‘real’ world. Having been born in ’91, I lived a large portion of my life without the Internet/smart phones playing such an enormous role as now, so I think I’m more optimistic for people about my age and older. Sadly, I feel like the world portrayed in ‘Her’ may well be quite close to the world that the 21st century babies will create/live in, what with 5-year-olds on smart phones nowadays and such. Troubling times, I think.

    That last paragraph was perhaps a bit of word-vomit speculation, but I’d be curious to hear any thoughts from you. Cheers.

    • Jordan, thank you for your thoughtful commentary.

      I would like first to address your comment on my notion about actors being changed. I didn’t flesh it out in the way I had hoped, but I basically meant that involved actors should experience a change in their depth of understanding of a film’s subject matter; at least I would this is the case. This is wonderful for the actors, director, writer, crew, etc., but for those of us who are only exposed to the content of a film for a measly 1.5-3 hours, it is a problem. I think this is an unresolvable issue, since actors and the like are paid for massive hours put into a film, and we pay a few bucks to watch a movie. They, ideally, are much more emotionally and thematically involved than we are. It is a wonderful thing if they have changed perspectives as a result of their part, but their change is probably more likely than ours as viewers. Does that clear things up?

      As for your next observation, I’m not entirely sure. I saw the majority of “Her” pointing to the decline of social relationships in a negative fashion. Not to say this is entirely the fault of technology, but you can definitely lump smart phones, social media, and the speed of communication into that pile. I am a pathetic 23 years of age, but I do wonder how those 15 years older than us would perceive the message of “Her”, compared to those who were born in 2000 (assuming they are old enough to comprehend it).

      You are correct, Jonze acknowledges that amidst the hopelessness of social interaction in his film, there is still hope, and there is still a chance for reconciliation in this area. The problem exists with those ‘millennials’ who grow up in a disconnected home (the divorce rate helps us little), and start at a young age with social media and the like. It might be a bit outlandish and too precautionary overall, but these children are growing up with very similar types who may place social media communication on a slightly higher ladder of importance than face-to-face communication.

      I’m not sure if I’m making any sense, but perhaps what I’ve written has helped to clarify my thoughts. I’m a bit of a rambler.

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