“Are these feelings even real, or are they just programming?” In “Her,” the latest effort from director and writer Spike Jonze (“Where the Wild Things Are,” “Being John Malkovich”), Jonze examines how love works with and around modern — or in this case, near-future — technology. A moving script, striking visuals and standout performances allow Jonze to take a nuanced look at how our current lives and relationships center around technology, and how it affects us, for better and worse.
Though it never gives a specific date, the film is set some time in the future Los Angeles. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a letter writer for a company that specializes in writing love letters. Recently separated from his wife and close to divorce, Theodore attempts to fulfill himself through various technological means. A small earpiece connected to a smartphone-esque device allows him to check everything online — emails and provocative pictures of celebrities included. After seeing an advertisement for “OS1,” a highly intelligent artificial operating system, he buys one. At home, after a series of personal questions are asked by the computer, the OS’s voice (Scarlett Johansson) begins to speak to him almost as if she were a normal person.
From here, the OS — who names herself Samantha — and Theodore’s relationship evolves to become very loving and tender. Frequent close-ups on Theodore show his joy as he goes from depressed to genuinely happy because of their relationship. Other shots subtly show Samantha’s point of view as she learns how her emotions — or at least, programmed feelings — work. Feelings not thought possible between human and machine, including sexual tension, form a large part of Samantha’s character at many points as she wishes she could have a body to have closer interaction with Theodore. The connection between Theodore and Samantha comes across as a natural building point in the relationship — even if the way in which it is done is unusual.
Our relationship with technology is explored within Samantha and Theodore’s interactions. Samantha’s constant questioning of herself and whether she is truly real is the driving force behind this. If she is making Theodore and herself happy, they find that it does not really matter what plane of existence they are on — as Samantha says, “they are all made of matter.” However, as she discovers more and more of what her own, non-human existence means in the context of her life, and how she operates as a different being, she and Theodore’s relationship faces drastic changes.
Though it has no definitive answer, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship allows the film to challenge the depths of love and relationships in real life and technology all at once. The love Samantha and Theodore feel is glowing and tender, but is it artificial because she is? And at what point does technology envelop us so much that we love it more than reality — or is it so ingrained, that becomes our new reality?
Another perspective of this is examined as Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) finds companionship — but only as friends — with her ex-husband’s discarded “female” OS. Amy and Theodore’s conversations show the difficulty in navigating the spaces between alternate, artificial realities. Amy, whose husband never truly supported her goals, finds comfort in relating to Theodore as someone who also had to turn to an artificial reality for solace — but it remains unclear if those artificial spaces have the capacity to provide solace indefinitely.
To accent all of this, soft cinematography slowly paints its way toward the subjects and allows space for the audience to get inside the characters’ minds, empathizing with them. Interspersed shots of the city and flashbacks show the scattered nature of their thoughts and how the city and life around them affects them. To add to this, a heavy red and blue color scheme is present throughout — whether it’s in Theodore’s work office or in what he’s wearing — to help show conflict in the emotions of love and sadness, and how they often bleed into each other.
“Her,” though it is guised behind its science fiction gimmick, is truly a simple story of love, life and loss in our modern age. Johansson’s emotionally evocative performance as Samantha makes the audience question whether it is okay to have such a deep relationship with something that is apparently artificial, or if the mind needs something to inhabit to evoke our feelings for it. In the end, a line from Amy sums up the ethos of the movie when she says, “I can overthink everything and find a million ways to doubt myself, but I’ve come to realize that we’re only here briefly and while I’m here I want to allow myself … joy.” The heart of “Her” is found here: Happiness lies wherever you make it, and you should do whatever is necessary to help yourself find it.
Rating: 4.5 stars