Her does not make itself easy to define and discuss, which is a compliment. It is a movie you won’t quickly forget, and one that will have you discussing and debating the story with friends and loved ones for a long while after the film ends.
To have a conversation about Her, you have to discuss its two different faces: romance and science fiction. The romance is the focus, not the technology. But the story couldn’t happen without the technology, so it is, at its heart, a science fiction story… much as that may annoy some folks to admit. In truth, you can’t really untangle the two, but I think most folks are going to try, so I will as well.
As a love story, Her is a standard sort of break-up, finding oneself, finding another, finding closure with the past, and growing kinda of tale. I am not trying to diminish that aspect, but it isn’t a collection of actions you haven’t seen before. The players and how they get there is what makes this story unique, while still being able to expose universals about life.
And this is where it becomes a science fiction story (I guess I couldn’t untangle them very much at all). It is as much about how technology affects relationships as well as trying to define love. But Her goes farther afield to ask bigger questions such as: What is life? Not in any particularly snooty way, but in the quiet, revelatory way that most of us experience such moments.
As it turns out, these aspects make Her an unexpectedly good companion piece for Don Jon. They share not only some of same themes, but also one of the actors, Johansson.
At the center of this quiet, intense tale are Phoenix (The Master) and Johansson (Don Jon). Phoenix creates a quietly magnetic everyman, with just enough spark to make him interesting. He is a hopeless romantic who has given up on love, at least for himself. The irony being his entire career is based on helping others express those feelings he is no longer comfortable with. It is a compelling performance, and a difficult one as he is mostly acting to a voice in his ear.
That voice, Johansson, had an equal challenge as her entire performance was done from a booth after the production completed. But, like Phoenix’s Theodore, you would be hard pressed to not believe Samantha is real. A true credit to her acting, even if the Academy didn’t deem her eligible for an Oscar nomination. You will believe and root for their relationship almost from the moment it begins… before you start to realize what it is you’re rooting for. And thus is the crux of the story and what the two struggle with together and with their friends.
In a supporting role, Adams brings in a wonderful turn, going from a sexy con-artist American Hustle to a waife-like geek in Her. She is practically invisible on screen, but provides a necessary spark for the story, and remains surprising throughout. Equally important, was the injection of Wilde (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone), who created a very real and very damaged woman; as much an interesting character as she is another window on the world in which the story takes place.
The production values were challenging for this story as well. It was intended to be LA, but not the LA we knew. Jonze did a beautiful job of melding LA and Shanghai into a believable future-LA, utterly seamlessly. Sound was another major issue to solve as Johannson’s Samantha never appears on screen, but has reams of dialog. The options of how to represent her voice must have caused many intense conversations in the production room. In the end, regardless of voice source, they went with a pure voice-over. I’m not sure it was the best choice, as I found the sound levels and clarity often distracting against the rest of the action, but it helped make Samantha more immediate. Like Theodore, you had no trouble envisioning Samantha in the room.
Jonze, as writer and director, did a terrific job of getting what he wanted without forcing things. His writing ranges from the weirdly wonderful Where the Wild Things Are to the broadly absurd, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, continues to show his versatility with Her. His directing has also ranged from the brilliant Being John Malkovich to, well, yes, Jackass again. There is a theme or lesson here, but I’m not sure what it is. Certainly it speaks to a facile and non-judgmental mind.
The biggest gaff in production for me was the costuming. Forgetting the styles, the fact that Phoenix had a total of 3 outfits began to drive me crazy. Also, for all the work to bring tech into the world invisibly, the clothing didn’t seem that utilitarian for their current needs, though Theodore’s solution for giving Samantha eyes on the world was both sweet and amusing.
From a pure science point of view, there was a lot to admire about Jonze’s story. The evolution of Samantha and the careful construction of the world were thoughtful. For a bit more on that, there is a fascinating article in Wire on the depiction of the tech in this film. I would argue there are mistakes and stretches in the plot, and for all the interesting places he did go, Jonze shied away from others. But he was trying to make a film for a broad audience, so I’ll give him the pass. The movie is cleverly created such that most people won’t even realize they just sat through a serious science fiction story. Unlike other great social science fiction tales, like Gattaca, there weren’t any obvious clues that it should be seen as anything other than an odd little romantic comedy… of sorts.
Bottom line: You should see this film. More importantly, you should support it in the theater so there are more like it in future. Not specifically this, in particular. Not even so there is more science fiction. You should because Jonze took a huge risk and created a memorable story that is wonderfully different than most of the fare out there. It will entertain you, quietly challenge you, and ultimately fulfill you in the most unexpected ways. We need more people out there getting stories like this to a wider audience, or we will simply drown in a sea of sequels, action movies, and absurdist rom-coms. As enjoyable as any of these are in moderation, that isn’t a future I want to live in.