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Review: Her (2013)

Her (2013)

Directed by: Spike Jonze

Premise: Set in the near future, a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) installs an artificially intelligent operating system (voice of Scarlett Johansson) into his personal computer network. The relationship between the user and his OS blossoms into a romance.

What Works: Audiences are accustomed to science fiction films being wedded to the action-adventure and fantasy genres. A lot of movies categorized as science fiction have very little science in them and are less about the human implications of technology than they are about thrilling set pieces punctuated by explosions. Her is a science fiction film but it is also a romance. But despite its love story, this is a science fiction film in the truest sense; Her is about the impact of technology on the human experience and the whole film is built around that idea. Her takes place in a future that is recognizable and plausible. The world of this film has no flying cars but it does have technology that is in most cases just slightly advanced from its present state and is integrated believably into the lives of the characters. That gives Her a lot of credibility and it drives home the underlying idea of the film; the conceit of this story is not just a fantastic concoction but a slightly exaggerated example of the way technology has shaped our social expectations and interactions. The filmmakers explore that primarily through the main plotline in which the central character, a recently divorced bachelor played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with an operating system. The conceit could be played for laughs but the filmmakers treat the idea and Phoenix’s character with a great deal of care. Instead of making this a farce, the filmmakers recognize that falling in love with an artificially intelligent operating system is not so absurd of an idea in a culture in which people are so attached to their cellular phones. Like any good love story, Her is about the comfort of companionship but the concept of the movie allows the filmmakers to deconstruct what that means. In the course of the story, Joaquin Phoenix’s character and his operating system, which calls itself Samantha, experience the euphoria of a new relationship but they also face the uncertainty of whether or not the love they are experiencing is real. That makes Her not just a film about technology but a sophisticated portrayal of what it means to be in love, the sense of self-worth that is found in romantic relationships, and how that self-worth is jeopardized when relationships falter.

What Doesn’t: Viewers who are dedicated science fiction fans might find problems with Her, in part because the film does not pursue the philosophical possibilities of a self-aware operating system to its full potential. The OS possesses humanity upon installation and so the film skips over Samantha’s fundamental growth as a character, which could be interesting material. That’s an understandable decision by the filmmakers, since Her is about the user, not the OS, and the conceit exists to allow the filmmakers to interrogate the relationship between technology and humanity. Her might also run into resistance in its novelty. This is a Spike Jonze picture and it demonstrates the filmmaker’s offbeat sensibility. Jonze has previously directed such unusual pictures as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are and his films appeal to critics and to moviegoers who like unusual or avant-garde pictures. Jonze’s singular voice is as much an asset as it is a liability, at least in regard to the accessibility of his work to mainstream audiences. Moviegoers who were put off by Jonze’s other movies are unlikely to respond to Her, even though it is probably his most accessible (and perhaps best) film.

Bottom Line: Her is a thoughtful movie but is also a sensitive portrayal of the human desire to connect. The filmmakers have come up with a novel concept that dramatizes the challenge of human relationships in the digital age and extrapolate that concept to a provocative conclusion.

Episode: #474 (January 19, 2014)