Directed, written, and produced by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, Her is a romantic sci-fi drama about letter writer Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) who falls in love with Samantha (Johansson), his artificially intelligent operating system. The film, released in 2013, marked Jonze’s screenwriting debut and was developed after he read an article about a program that allowed users to instant message with an AI program and received critical acclaim for it’s expert take on society’s growing dependence on technology.
The film takes place in Los Angeles of the near future – Theodore is a lonely, rather introverted man who spends his days developing personalized letters and greeting cards. He’s depressed because of his impending divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and wildly disconnected from his friends and coworkers, Amy (Amy Adams), Charles (Matt Letscher), and Paul (Chris Pratt). On a whim and after a terrible night of seeking internet companionship from a late night sex hotline, Theodore purchases an artificially intelligent OS that adapts to the world, evolves, and learns. Theodore is captivated when his OS names herself and proves curious, funny, and supportive of his endeavors.
His friends recognize how lonely he is and constantly set him up with internet dates, which never quite seem to turn out right. After his latest blind date goes terribly, he has a conversation with Samantha about relationships and emotional connection, that leads to an intense and intimate verbal sexual encounter. Their quickly developed friendship begins to turn romantic, and Theodore suddenly finds himself writing and interacting with others more, and Samantha begins evolving more as an individual.
Things quickly turn sour when Theodore meets with his ex to sign the divorce papers and mentions Samantha – Catherine is anything but supportive, confused at the idea that he could be intimate with a “computer” – and tension begins to rise as the OS’s rise in popularity and Theodore begins to wonder if their relationship is worth it if he and Samantha can never truly be together in a physical sense.
Pheonix is wonderful in the role of Theodore. He plays Theodore’s uncomfortable and desperate loneliness well despite his usual dashing good looks and often unmistakable bravado in his other films. He’s quiet and unsure at all the right times, and frustratingly selfish and careless in others – through the film, it’s easy to find yourself rooting for and gushing over him one moment and feeling incredibly baffled and annoyed by his moody behavior in others. Still, while Phoenix’s portrayal of Theodore is masterful in it’s careful vulnerability, Johansson’s Samantha is the true triumph. Her voice is tender, but sensual; sweet, but sexy; and she plays the role of the compassionate and curious yet wildly intelligent and at times brash OS perfectly. It’s impossible to imagine another actress playing Samantha even though the character is disembodied. Though Johansson is not ever physically seen in the movie, you see her in Samantha, even when she’s just a tiny metal box sitting in Theodore’s pocket.
Even more compelling is the film’s Soundtrack, developed and cultivated by Arcade Fire’s Will Butler and Owen Pallet. The score is effortlessly simplistic in tone, with pianos and guitars and synths, all soft strumming and major chords. There’s an eerie quality to the music too, with it’s real but ethereal and often artificial sounding melodies. The obvious stand out of the soundtrack is The Moon Song – which was professionally recorded by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Keonig, but performed by Johansson and Phoenix in the film. While the rendition for the official soundtrack is beautiful, the film really made the right choice by including the rough and slightly pitchy vocals from Johansson and Phoenix. It’s a sweet song, made even sweeter by charmingly raw vocals.
Finally, the film’s color palette takes the film to another level completely. Reminiscent of that Wes Anderson’s precisely developed look, the film includes pastels and more vibrant shades of orange, red, blue, yellow, green, and more. The people, and the main characters more intimate environments are bright and interesting – which sets them apart from the rest of the world around them, which seems muted as though mimicking the sensory deprivation provided by societies reliance on technology. Things get brighter when Theodore and Samantha fall in love and fade upon their eventual breakup, with trees seeming greener and the sky seeming bluer.
Her is a remarkable film with an interesting story to tell. Films have been made about the effects of AI, touching on the fear and paranoia of allowing such technology into our homes and personal lives, but none have been so touching, intimate, or romantic as Her. Jonze’s film is expertly produced – between very real reactions of other’s to Theodore’s budding relationship and his exploration of Theodore’s loneliness in connection to his feelings for Samantha – it’s clear that AI proves as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves than it proves as a threat. Through Jonze’s writing and well crafted performances by Phoenix and Johansson, Her is a movie well worth the watch and well worth the moments of reflection afterwards.