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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: Her

As a genre, science fiction is difficult to define precisely. These stories often take us away to another place, time, species or planet and use those speculative creations as a mirror to explore the human condition. To that end, Her doesn't have a particularly strong science-fiction flavor, but it wields the tools of the genre with deft precision, at once convincing me it contained one of the best love stories I'd seen in the past year and leaving me to wonder if what I'd seen was actually a love story at all. 

Her is the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a recently-separated man living in a not-too-distant future who works as a writer for a company that crafts love letters and personal correspondence for private clients. Her is also the story of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), a new operating system designed to intuit and personally interact with its user on a higher level. Samantha quickly shows Theodore the depth of her artificial intelligence, and the two slowly transition their user/operating system relationship into a romance that is both nontraditional and surprisingly conventional. 

Early in the film, prior to his relationship with Samantha, Theodore goes on a date but abruptly halts the evening when his date suggests she wants to make concrete plans to see him again. We see this knee-jerk fear of commitment and connection throughout the film, as well as what contributed to Theodore's fear via flashbacks to his decaying marriage. 

This date scene is relevant because I believe those who come away from Her with a singular message - that technology isolates people - are missing some of the movie's deeper points. I don't think Her is a commentary on the evils or danger of modern technology. Technology doesn't isolate people. People isolate people. And the distinction is important. In our relationships, we may hurt each other and disappoint each other and pull away from each other; we may shelter ourselves with any number of tools, but the instinct to use technology to seclude or connect is always driven by our own nature. 

I believe the larger purpose of Her is to explore what constitutes a true connection and challenge our definition of a meaningful relationship. When meeting with his ex-wife, played perfectly by Rooney Mara, Theodore is asked if he's dating his operating system because he can't handle a real relationship. The question haunts Theodore, but the best part of Her is that it doesn't set out to answer this question for us. Is their relationship "real"?

Critics are comparing this movie to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it's a good comparison to make - it's one of the only other movies I've seen that created a relationship so accurately flawed and thorough and vivid. Watching Her feels almost like watching a series of tangentially related moments, and it's difficult to fully appreciate all of those moments until they are stacked together and looked at as a whole in the aftermath of viewing. Her benefits from and is even romanticized in the retrospect, much like failed relationships do after the bitterness dies away and the best pieces and lessons stay with you. 

In addition to how much I enjoyed the story in Her - both as a love story and as an analysis of humanity and relationships - Spike Jonze's script is genuinely funny throughout, using bizarre chat roulette-style hookups and a video game featuring the perfect class mom to poke fun at some of our society's current tech obsessions. The setting is futuristic, but not in a pointy-and-shiny way. High-waisted pants and mustaches are all the rage, and the vision of this future looks more like the world Steve Jobs would have created if he were somehow responsible for its design. Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography captures this soft-yet-clean aesthetic perfectly, creating one of the most inviting and visually appealing movies I've seen in a long time.  

It's also impossible not to marvel at the acting efforts of both Phoenix and Johansson, who was introduced in the 11th hour after replacing Samantha Morton in the film's post-production. Jonze's choice to go with a more sultry, human voice likely made a huge difference in the believability factor for Theodore's feelings towards Samantha, and Johansson manages to make a huge impact without ever appearing on-screen. Amy Adams also makes brief-but-strong appearances as one of Theodore's neighbors and long-term friends. 

I honestly don't have any real criticisms of Her, which is currently in serious contention with 12 Years a Slave for my favorite movie of 2013. For all of the reasons above and all of the others I know the movie will provoke in repeated viewings, I give it an A. 
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