Mark Reviews Movies



4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Spike Jonze

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, Matt Letscher, Portia Doubleday, the voice of Scarlett Johansson

MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity)

Running Time: 2:05

Release Date: 12/18/13 (limited); 12/25/13 (wider); 1/10/14 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2013

Writer/director Spike Jonze's magnificently thought-provoking Her raises philosophical queries about the nature of love and the responsibility humans have for the technology we create and use (and, if or—probably more likely—when it gets that point, the responsibility technology would or will have towards us). Jonze's screenplay takes an almost absurdist science-fiction conceit of a man falling in love with a machine and, with the aid of an unobtrusive vision of the near future, turns it into a relevant commentary on modern society's reliance on technology for what has become a new norm for living. More than that, though, the film is also emotionally authentic in exploring the ramifications of what such a relationship would have on the participants.

Even beyond that, Jonze uses the concept as a means of exploring what makes us human, and if one wants to take it even further, the very notion of an artificially intelligent entity—an operating system for a computer—with the capacity for learning, feeling, and behaving in recognizably human ways forces us to re-evaluate whether there is something genuinely unique about what the things we believe make us unique as human beings. "It's not just an operating system," the commercial for the revolutionary OS1 announces; "it's a consciousness."

If a computer program can be coded to replicate the thought processes and emotional responses of a human being, we really have to take pause at the thought of our brains as a complex supercomputer. Is there something intangible behind the spark of consciousness, or is it, like this operating system's experience of existing, just programming?

Again, all of this comes into play out of a concept that, on paper, might sound silly—a man falling in love with a computer system. The brilliance of Jonze's screenplay is not only in how quickly he roots us in this world and ties us to these characters but also in how nimbly and effortlessly he moves from one idea and, more importantly, the consequences of each idea to the next.

Nothing about it feels forced. There's elegance to the internal logic of the scenario. It begins with the lonely life of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), whose life doesn't seem so lonely at first. We first hear him reciting a letter a lover, but it becomes clear as nears the finish that this is only his letter in the words. The context belongs to someone else. He is a writer but one in need of a day job, and that is to compose personal letters for complete strangers. It's a thriving business in this future where everyone is connected to the Internet through an earpiece and a classy smartphone.

Everyone is always talking, but through Theodore's commute home from work, we realize that no one is really communicating with each other. There's something eerily familiar about the scene, and everything about this future—from production designer K.K. Barrett's minor updates to the modern world to the old-is-new costumes by Casey Storm, with the entire aesthetic complemented by Hoyte Van Hoytema's beautifully muted cinematography—looks and feels entirely plausible.

The people present on Theodore's route are merely organizing and orchestrating their contact with world around them with an always-available, voice-controlled computer—listening to and responding to emails, getting this piece of news or that bit of celebrity gossip, and setting a soundtrack to their life with music to accompany the mood. He has neighbors—Amy (Amy Adams), a friend from college, and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher)—with whom he occasionally visits, but the absence of a connection between the couple only solidifies our perception that basic human interaction has disintegrated. Theodore's only direct contact with another human being through technology comes from chat room for singles, but the impersonal nature of the communication leads to a disturbingly funny scene where he becomes the unwitting participant in a twisted sex fantasy.

It's no wonder that Theodore, reluctant to finalize the divorce with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), is intrigued by the ad for the OS1—a groundbreaking piece of technology and the promise of a companion that at least fill the silence of his apartment with some kind of conversation. After installing it (The process includes determining his personality with questions like, "What's your relationship with your mother like?"), the voice (of Scarlett Johansson), entirely personable, greets him. He asks what her (He chooses a "female" system) name is, and she says it's Samantha. He asks how she got that name; she tells him she gave it to herself after browsing an entire book of baby names in the less-than-a-second pause between his question and her response.

The dynamic between them is established relatively quickly. Theodore is impressed with Samantha's organizational skills but downright flummoxed by her ability to read him and develop a distinct personality—full of humor and childlike wonder for everything she's learning about the world of which she eventually rationalizes she's a part after reading an advanced physics book. Samantha is envious of the human body and feels limited by her existence as a program. It's a co-dependent relationship, really. She needs him to evolve (On a more essential level, what's an operating system without an operator?), and he needs her to provide the support he is not getting from anyone else.

This relationship simply doesn't work without the performances. Phoenix is outstanding in the way he masters the tricky task of not only speaking and responding to an unseen partner but also living in the moment of and being affected by the conversations between Theodore and Samantha. Johansson's vocal performance is equally impressive. There's an entire character in the quality of her voice—a being with hopes and fears who is both confused and awed by the very fact of her existence. As individually exceptional these performances are, it's the combination that is vital to the success of the central conceit—that Samantha is some form of brave, new life.

Where this relationship takes both characters is invigorating in how Jonze follows through on the central conundrum (Samantha discovers a surrogate service to provide a physical conduit for an operating system) and haunting. There's a subtle emotional shift in the way we view Samantha's creation.  As she starts to become attached to the physical world, we realize there's an inherent cruelty in her creation—that no matter how much she wants to be a part of the world, she will always be separate from it. By the time Her starts to draw near its—in retrospect—inevitable conclusion, though, the entire paradigm has shifted. The limitations are our own, and as cruel as they may be, they make us human.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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