Theodore Twombly is a man stuck between lives. He and his wife are splitting up, they’ve been apart for nearly a year but he won’t sign the papers. Drifting from his home to the office to his home again, through an L.A. set slightly in the future. Thoughtfully portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, he soon finds himself engaging in his first meaningful connection with another person since the separation from his wife. Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson, is fun, insightful, quirky, sensitive, and spontaneous. She just also happens to exist only as a voice in Theodore’s head. She’s the operating system Theodore recently purchased for his personal computer, and their primary interaction is limited to an earphone and phone-sized computer/screen. The task the movie takes on is to convince us that these two form a meaningful relationship, and to make us care whether or not it’s right for them and if it works.
In what essentially amounts to a two hour solo act of dialogue, punctuated by duets as he advances the plot through friends and colleagues, it’s an impressive accomplishment. With another actor it could easily have become “Hi, this is his face, this is her voice. You three should try to like each other, you’ll be spending a lot of time together.” Instead it’s such a winning pair of performances that you seldom see the performances at all. What you mostly see and hear and experience instead are the things they share with each other, their thoughts, their marvels, their questions, their struggles. They are trying to figure this new thing out, and the new versions of themselves that they each see through the other, and we’re invited to come along.
Technically, the movie is a beauty of light and purposeful understatement. The cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema (“Let the Right One In,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) glows like a summer afternoon, floating through the world while anchored to the lead. More than twice I made a mental note to look up items from the soundtrack, provided largely by Arcade Fire, once I got home. All the right notes of the “like this in the future” song in the first act are struck in inventive and original ways. Though you don’t need many side characters to tell a story with as intimate a scope as this, the ones here are strong and convincing. And give Scarlett Johansson a medal, by the way. Easily one of the most tangible characters I’ve seen her bring to life, and we never see her face.
Science fiction fans in attendance will know the ground this story rests on is well-farmed to say the least. There are a number of ways I thought I saw the second and third acts playing out as the movie began to unfold, several of which I’ll admit had occurred on the way to the theater (“Dave… I can feel it…”). But the movie aims for a higher course than the “thou shall not play god!” loomings of technology-gone-too-far-and-therefore-wrong and man-loses-touch-with-reality. What it instead tries to capture are the same kinds of things all good romance movies go after: the experiences and emotions that come with finding a genuine connection with someone. I’ve spent a lot of time in the science fiction section over the years, and a general principle that’s formed in my mind is that the best stories, the ones that stay with us the longest, are not about intricate world building or mind-blowing philosophy or well-rendered trick photography. That’s just set-dressing. All a good story has to do is take one simple idea that’s completely unreal, and try to find the real ways that real people would be affected by it and have to make it make sense in their lives (“Gattaca,” “Eternal Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Inception,” “The Terminator,” “The Thing”). On a first viewing, I am confident that “Her” will come to be remembered as well.
Theodore Twombly does his work well. His job is possibly my personal favorite future-parable in the film: writing heartfelt letters on behalf of other people, the recipients of which know the letters are professionally written and value them anyway. But he admits he doesn’t much enjoy it anymore. When Theodore bumps into friends, he makes small talk. When his friends set him up on a blind date, he goes through with it, with mixed results. And how wonderful is that blind date sequence, where both parties try so hard to behave in an informal way that their words and gestures become a new formality in themselves? Before Samantha comes into his life, his struggle is to make himself interested in his life and the people around him.
And Samantha may be a person, but she is not human. Like any good operating system of the future, she combines real feelings with computer intellect. Gets sarcasm, does not get boundaries. She can analyze and organize thousands of old emails in an instant, and will sometimes express her emotions most easily by simultaneously composing and performing a piano piece on the spot. She can consume and integrate the contents of whole books as part of making one brief decision, but will wonder aloud what it’s like to live in a body.
As things move along it is a little creepy/sad/happy to see this grown man laughing and singing and running around to amuse his borderline-imaginary friend, but the two leads have such genuine chemistry in their scenes together that you’re kept very much in the moment. And most of us have seen people act that goofy or goofier in real life. The movie makes the point better than I can: falling in love is itself like a societally-accepted form of insanity.
The story does spend some time analyzing itself, and talking over some of the differences between Samantha and a “real girl” would be. In-universe, artificially intelligent operating systems are new, and you get the feeling that everyone’s sort of still figuring out what the new rules for that are. Kind of like Facebook back in 2005. But Spike Jonze (writer and director) largely eschews this track as well. When the relationship’s strangeness is brought up, it’s brought up to reveal the characters of people mentioning it. Again and again the emphasis of the movie comes back to taking familiar meanings and emotions and translating them into this world where the lines between formality and informality are everywhere blurred, where interaction through an electronic intermediary is the rule and not an exception, and where a person’s gestures and the person themselves are no longer necessarily connected. And then asking us which part of what thing is the part that should really matter, what will disappoint or bring us joy.
This builds to where we see the heart of the story come into focus, and its largest questions rise to confront the characters. Does the movie answer these questions? Are they well answered? I for one was contented, but I was mainly pleased to see the matters in play so wholeheartedly thought through. (I am curious to see what the real life answer to the True Love with an Information Machine might be, if it comes up in our lifetime.) But if a person came away from this movie hung up on the high-concept logline of “boy meets girl, she’s a Mac,” I would say they probably missed the point.
Her doesn’t entertain, it doesn’t set out to. In the years to come it may not often be popped into video players as background noise, or for something wind down the day (except possibly among undergrads, the great overachievers of sentiment). Like much of Jonze’s work, the emotional pitch doesn’t often climb higher than “hey, this is—this is pretty good, life really isn’t bad after all, I think,” and for much for the running time is somewhat mellower than that. It aspires to be more than entertainment, and to make us ask ourselves what relationships are now, and what it is about them that really matters to us. And it’s so likable and thoughtful a work that it largely succeeds.
I would recommend seeing this movie. Don’t see it with your parents, unless they’ve heard you having sex through a wall and it was fine with everybody. But I would also say, if you can help it, don’t see it alone. I don’t say that because it is a little sad, although it is (not a spoiler, just look at the poster), but because when it’s over you’re going to want someone there who’s also seen it that you can talk with about it. I overheard a man leaving the theater behind me complaining loudly to his companion that he strongly disliked it; I believe for most other movies my response would have been “Pssh, what a jerk. Tom Hiddleston is awesome.” But this time I actually wanted to stop the guy and ask him why he didn’t like it, maybe he noticed something I didn’t, or had something useful to say that I’d like to hear. Did I actually stop him? Pssh, no. I don’t know that guy.