by Thom Yee
her is one of those movies most people will go into very consciously. You won’t just be giving it a try on a “larf”, you won’t be buying your ticket, sight unseen, and you won’t be settling down into your seat not knowing what to expect. If you see it, you’ll be seeing it very deliberately. You’ll know exactly what you’re getting into. You’ll know you’ll be seeing a quirky, Oscar-nominated film and you’ll know there’ll be at least a degree of self-questioning. Perhaps the only thing you won’t know is how it could possibly end in anything other than complete and utter heartache that will leave you shattered… gutted. And in some ways, you’ll know that that’s the main reason you’re going to see it in the first place.
It’s a funny little movie. It explores the extraordinary questions of our collective, modern zeitgeist — the nature of existence, the nature of reality, the progress of technology, programming, memory and the singularity — but only on the surface. The deep thoughts that question existence itself are mere table stakes, the empty, insubstantial detritus of a film that’s aiming far higher.
For you see, her, for all of its futurism, high concepts, and existentiality, is a movie about relationships. It’s a movie about the barriers we raise and the ways we divide ourselves, the tribal lines that keep us hanging around our work friends and shunning the “Hi”’s and “How are you”’s of those we don’t already know, that keep us desiring the same kinds of companions over and over and not finding out what else is out there while discounting and dismissing what’s in here.
And it’s my early frontrunner for best movie of 2014.
In the near future, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system, OS1, is developed. OS1 not only promises to help us with work, organize our calendars and generally improve our lives, but also to constantly grow, adapt and evolve like a real human being. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely, introverted writer who’s recently separated from his wife, purchases OS1, the system developing into Samantha (Scarlet Johansson) after only a few questions about his life. While at first Samantha helps Theodore with his day-to-day life and offers companionship, the two soon grow close and begin dating.
Obviously that’s a fairly sci-fi concept and one that wouldn’t have had nearly as much impact or meaning even ten years ago, but this is not at all a sci-fi movie. There are elements of future theory all over the film, from the technology (mostly more personal versions of the tech we use today) to the fashion (all men seem to wear super-high-waisted pants), but there is very little to be drawn from exploring these trappings beyond the superficial. The only real futurism to be observed is all a steady projection of where most of us have already imagined things are going.
Instead, her effectively plays with our natural preconceptions and prejudices to arrive at more viscerally real contemplations. Just to look at the poster and watch the trailer, a lot of people would naturally assume that her is about some loser who can’t find love from anything other than his computer. That mustache, those clothes, those glasses — Theodore is a gawky-looking mess, stereotypically designed in every way to be a beta male. But the weird thing is, there are no alpha males in her to either question Theodore’s masculinity or to make him appear diminished in any significant way. He gets along fine with most people, he has friends and contacts, people who admire his work, and even dates people who look like Olivia Wilde, getting along with her well enough that none of us are particularly inclined to ask why she would go out with him. Where the film’s premise might suggest that OS1 is designed to be the perfect companion or a romance machine, it turns out that Theodore is one of only a few people for whom romance blooms. In fact, Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s closest friend throughout the film, winds up becoming close friends with her ex-husband’s OS and we’re told that other people actually hit on their OS’s, most of which is to no avail.
Samantha herself, though largely a disembodied voice, becomes a full-fledged character as personified by Scarlet Johansson. At first you wonder what sort of monsters could program intelligences that can think and grow and contemplate but are trapped at the whims of their users before you realize that, to her, her incorporeal state is natural, a state through which she wonders how we can exist, tethered in time and space to the one place in the world.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about her is seeing how generally accepting people are of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. Apart from the judgment of Theodore’s ex-wife (Rooney Mara), Theodore is largely free to tell people he’s dating his OS in a judgment-free atmosphere. In an age where same-sex marriages are still far from legal and interracial relationships are still looked down upon in many circles, it’s one of the most notable characteristics of her, one that actually makes you feel a little bit better on the inside and hopeful for a better tomorrow.
What’s most remarkable about her is just how right the relationship between Theodore and Samantha feels. No matter who the two are and how fundamentally different they are to each other, these are two sentient souls, souls that grow and grow together through the natural ebbs and flows of their relationship. And because her gets this relationship so right, the film stays with you, haunting your waking thoughts and passing dreams. I woke up in the middle of the night the day after I saw it, staring out the window of a small downtown apartment, very much reminiscent of scenes from her, and I could almost feel a profound and deepening connection to the film as I realized how real it felt and how remembered how easy it is to feel alone.
At this stage of humanity — as much as we use web dating services, marry our WoW avatars together, and count our friends in the thousands, but only online — very few of us would be ready to enter into a relationship with our computers, no matter how advanced or sentient. And yet, there are times when I saw Theodore and Samantha’s relationship and felt genuine envy. When Samantha plays back the piano piece she composed, representing their relationship in that point in time, I almost (almost) cried. What I slowly realized about their relationship, though, is that I didn’t envy their romance, I envied their companionship, and I envied the basic idea of someone always being there. Someone to ask me how I’m feeling. Someone to talk to in the middle of the night. Someone from whom I don’t feel I have anything to hide. Like Theodore says, “I love the way you see the world,” and we would all be lucky to have a relationship with somebody like that, artificial or not.
On a more technical note, it’s also interesting to see the interaction between platforms. OS1 operates across desktops, earpieces, and handsets in a way that all tech futurists hope for. In the days of Android fragmentation, in the seas of synchronization failures, and in our times of competing user interfaces, gestures, hard keys and touch screens, it’s nice to see things just work. In particular, the handsets more closely resemble hand-held picture books, bringing a level of intimacy and warmth to technology that could otherwise have felt clinical or detached.
As I look back at this review, I don’t know if my ramblings have really done the film justice, but I want to make sure that I impress upon you that her is an amazing movie, one that stays with you and lingers as you face the parts of your day that make up your life. The true gift of her is that, if you’re ready for it it, it can almost have as profound an effect on you, the viewer, as Samantha had on Theodore, and if you’re ready to absorb it, you’ll be that much better for having watched it.
her final score: 9.5
On the Edge
-For a movie about the near future, her is shockingly free of branding. It’s not Windows OS1 or OS1 Mavericks or Linux distro of OS1. We’re told it was developed by Element Software, but that name is never really mentioned again.
-Working in electronics retail and considering that ending… I just know there’d be a bunch of people trying to return their OS’s and blaming the store for all of their problems.
-And now for a counter-perspective: