One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.
It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.
In a vague near feature, Her follows Theodore (The Master‘s Joaquin Phoenix), a man entering middle-age after a painful divorce (from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Rooney Mara). Theodore writes letters as a surrogate for individuals that don’t have the poetry, emotion, or time to sit down and do it himself, and although a deep well of melancholy runs through him, Theodore is a romantic in the classical sense at heart. But ever since his divorce, Theodore has, with the exception of his work, wandered through life driftless and without meaning. It isn’t until Theodore meets Samantha (Vicki Cristina Barcelona‘s Scarlett Johansson) that his life begins to emerge from the rut he’s ran himself into.
Unlike his closest friend, Amy (The Fighter‘s Amy Adams), Samantha differs from the average woman in Theodore’s life. It doesn’t help that she isn’t technically a woman. Samantha is an artificially intelligent operating system gifted with intuition and the ability to learn — paired with processing power that the human brain could only imagine wielding. Samantha begins her life, for the film wastes no time debating whether or not she’s a sentient being, managing Theodore’s affairs, but it isn’t long before Samantha and Theodore fall in love. And Theodore’s human hang-ups are set in direct conflict with Samantha’s growing sense of the nature of her own existence and what she wants and needs in life.
That Her manages to be as focused as it is in the face of its towering ambitions is nothing short of a cinematic miracle. Her isn’t about one single element of love but the act of love itself, and it punches the audience in the heart with each point it lands. Above all else, Her charts the course of the inevitability of change in a relationship. Life is growth. When our personalities/interests/attitudes are set in stone, we are intellectually dead. Life is a narrative, and that narrative should grow til death. But when we fall in love, we fall in love with a person at a specific time and place in their lives. But that person won’t always exist. And will we always love the person we once loved becomes? Should we feel guilty that we eventually fall out of love? Or is that as natural as those first, intense embers of romance? Nothing can last forever. Not even love. And Her refuses to shy away from this.
But Her understands more about love than just its impermanence. It understands that love does not have to be limited to one person: that you can love many and love them all intensely. It understands that no couple, even those in the heated throes of early passion, will ever truly want all the same things in life. It understands that we will degrade ourselves in order to maintain a love that has long since ceased being what it once was. It understands all of the social and environmental factors that lead love to bloom in the first place and our insistent, human denials that we throw towards those causes.
Though my sympathies lie with Samantha by the end of the film who transforms into the hero by the credits, the dramatic weight of the film is carried by Joaquin Phoenix who continues his own transformation into one of the most volatile and dynamic actors of his generation. This isn’t to discount Scarlett Johansson’s performance. She imbues Samantha with so much humanity and emotion and warmth that it would be easy (were it not for the writing which slowly begins to emphasize the distance between her and Theodore because of her OS nature) to think she was simply always off-screen, reading lines to her partner. But alongside his feral performance in The Master, Joaquin’s turn as Theodore is one of the great performances of the 2010s.
Theodore’s pain at the beginning of the film is transmittable through the physical presence of Joaquin’s performance. He looks as if he could collapse any second from the weight of his own misery. He can put on a friendly face. He can smile and chat with his friends, but when no one is looking, Theodore is a void where happiness and meaning long since ran away. And, the spark of life that returns with Samantha is allowed to simmer before it explodes in a burst of purpose and direction. And Joaquin Phoenix guides us through each stage of Theodore’s emotional journey.
By that description, it might be easy to make the mistake that Samantha is some cheap Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Computer) that makes a white man feel better about his life. But, like the best romances, Her subverts that trope… hard. Though we’re never given the insight into Samantha’s emotions that we have with Theodore, that’s because the film is told from Theodore’s point of view. But Spike Jonze hints at a world of secret wants, unspoken desires, and a yearning for constant self-discovery. Samantha is the least selfish but most complex figure in the film for those willing to delve into the waters of sussing out what she wants instead of Theodore’s constant, selfish demands.
Spike Jonze’s direction is like nothing else that the filmmaker has yet produced. Much of Her is monologue or dialogue set to slowly moving images, and Jonze achieves a Malick-ian quality with his camera. But beyond the magical camera work, Spike Jonze is able to suggest an entire world through the normcore clothing everyone seems to wear and the straight out of Ikea furniture and architecture his characters wander through. It’s the rare sci-fi film that seems possible. I don’t think we’ll all be dressing like George Costanza in 30 years, but it’s easy to imagine a world where technology has removed the need to think about stylistic/creative decisions like that.
Her is not a simple film, and it’s sadly too easy to imagine a studio version of this film where Samantha and Theodore’s relationship is played for cheap laughs or where the sci-fi elements overwhelm the humanity of the story. But, like another great sci-fi film about a person that doesn’t happen to be human (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), Her knows where the heart of its story lies. And if you watch Her and learn something about love and process a lesson that can keep you from hurting someone else in the future, then it’s achieved its goals. I know where it’s led me.
Final Score: A+