Spike Jonze, the director of such brilliant films as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, returns with a beautiful, creative and incredibly relevant film about the nature of human connection in a world where everyone seems more interested in their phone screens than talking to one another.
Shifting things into the near future, we follow Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a loner in a world of loners who works at a company that writes personalised letters for people. One day he decides to try out “the world’s first artificially intelligent Operating System,” which introduces herself to him as Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). He then sparks up a relationship with the OS that’s specifically designed to meet his every need.
Where many films try and fail to get at the heart of the effect technology has on people and how it has brought us closer together in some ways while pulling us apart in others, Her absolutely nails it. Beautifully shot with this kind of free-spirited gracefulness that makes it easy to invest in and even easier to enjoy, it’s an often funny and very moving film that’s as much as much a dissection of how modern technology virtually controls our life as it is a look at complex relationships, however unconventional they may be.
Joaquin Phoenix is utterly terrific in the lead role here, giving a remarkably soulful, subtle and heartfelt performance of a man who spends his working life giving others comfort in the form of bespoke personal letters and only finds meaning when his computer starts to seem more real than the real life people with whom he comes into contact. That includes his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Rooney Mara) who, in comparison, seems antiquated in both her attitude towards this new technology and to their relationship in the modern (or rather, future) world.
There are also great supporting performances from the likes of Amy Adams as Theodore’s friend and fellow user of the new OS technology; the aforementioned Mara in a small but crucial role as his wife; and even Johansson who, although we only ever hear her voice, is a genius piece of casting. We hang on her every word as the relationship between the two of them grows, him changing her just as much as the other way around. For all its near-future world examinations, at its heart it’s a good old-fashioned love story.
The film is sci-fi in the same way as, say, Another Earth or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is sci-fi. There are no aliens or giant spaceships. It’s real world and utterly believable because the film never treats those elements as anything more than what they are; just merely a part of this world that’s not too dissimilar to our own. When Theodore shyly admits to dating a computer, it’s met with an intrigued “Really? What’s that like?” And this is just one of the many subtle ways the film comments on our own time; we’re right along with that reaction, rather than exclaiming disgust as we may have just a few years ago. This is a world and time within arm’s reach of us rather than being completely alien.
It’s also believable because the central relationship is taken seriously. Not that there aren’t laughs along the way – there are moments here that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny – but it treats it with respect, never feeling the need to fall into maudlin sentimentality and, crucially, never makes it seem in any way creepy. There are ups and downs, secrets and lies, just like any other relationship and after a while you sort of forget you’re watching one that’s half made up of a computerised system, something that’s a testament to both Jonze’s brilliantly written script and the performances of Phoenix and Johansson.
Set to an affecting and effective score by Arcade Fire that couldn’t be anymore fitting for the material, Her is an emotionally engaging, wonderfully acted and especially moving film that cleverly taps into what it means to connect in the technology-driven modern era. I’m fully convinced it will be looked back on as one of the key films of our time, not just because of how simultaneously relevant and prescient it feels but because how it melds that with a truly poignant and heartbreaking love story.