The only thing I knew of Her going in was that it was a film about a man falling in love with his computer. I feared from the premise this would be some sort of low brow comedy, but what I discovered instead is a touching romance film with surprising depth, that examines relationships in a realistic and believable manner.
First thing to mention is that the protagonist, Theodore, (Joaquin Phoenix) is not a freak. He has success with women, and is a normal, if lonely, man. Instead of taking the easy path and feature a tech nerd in the vein of The Big Bang Theory, Her focuses on a believable, real character, and is all the better for it.
Her finds Theodore, or Ted, nearly a year after he split from his wife, the love of his life. Ted is a lonely romantic, with an unsatisfying life. He spends his day writing others love letters for a living, and his nights alternating between playing video games and online sex chat rooms. Ted’s loneliness leads him to purchase the new OS1, an operating system designed to have a humanlike AI personality, that adapts and evolves as it grows. Before long Ted and the AI, who takes the name Sam (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) embark on a relationship, that we follow throughout the film.
One of the things I most liked about Her was how it handled Artificial Intelligence. We don’t see any of the stereotypes of AI, the OS’ do not want to destroy the world. They don’t want to control us, join with us, or eliminate humanity. They are just as complex and real as humans. They have needs, wants and fears. Sam’s evolution from assistant organising Ted’s e-mails to full blown character, is fascinating to watch.
Despite focusing on a relationship between a corporeal and non-corporeal entities, the film features sex scenes, which on paper sound odd… but in Her are used for a meaningful purpose, first with the initiation of the relationship, bringing Sam and Theodore together as a couple. This is all the more effective for being shot in near pitch black, with just voice over from the two main leads. The second is something completely different. It is revealed that Sam has been in contact with a girl who has agreed to act as Sam’s body for her, and Ted to have real intercourse, free of charge, believing so strongly in their relationship. The subsequent moral dilemma for Ted fully displays Phoenix range of emotions the pain mixed with want and the fear of betrayal, his need and inability to unplug from reality, is nothing short of incredible.
Director Spike Jonze handles the world of Her in a refreshing manner, from its aforementioned handling of AI, to the normality of a relationship with an AI being. Ted is not stigmatised for his relationship, and his friends accept it as a normal, healthy, thing. I was worried how Ted’s friends would perceive his relationship, and seeing them handle as mature adults, seeing them accept both the relationship, and Sam, was both surprising and touching. The only character we really see how doesn’t agree with the relationship is Ted’s ex-wife, seeing his relationship with Sam as proof that he cannot accept the reality and responsibilities of real life.
The acting skills on show in Her are outstanding. Amy Adams is typically excellent in a supporting role, but it is Phoenix and Johansson whose chemistry sparks off the screen and carries the film, both are more than worthy of awards. The lonely romantic Ted is played to perfection by Phoenix, every emotion, every ounce of Ted’s being is conveyed, his panic and utter helplessness in one scene near the end of the film is just pure brilliance. Johansson gives one of the defining performances of her career, in what is a role she could have easily have phoned in, Johansson brings Sam to life. It is truly amazing how the tiny inflections in her voice convey such deep and powerful emotion. It is a shame that Johansson will not be nominated for Best Actress for her work, given that it is voice only – she is well deserving of such an accolade.
I would be amiss not to mention Jonze’s direction and cinematography. The film is beautifully shot, every scene bringing to a life a believable near future world, Jonze’s use of colour and contrast enhancing the films pure beauty. The simplicity of the technology design is perfect for the personal feel of the story. The soundtrack, composed by Owen Pallet and Arcade Fire, adds further depth to the film, almost breaking the fourth wall with the many piano pieces composed by Sam for Ted. This is not a one way street, with Ted composing ukulele songs that Sam provides the lyrics for. These pieces perfectly sum up Sam and Ted’s evolving relationship, providing another layer that draws the audience in.
As a social commentary Her is chillingly accurate. The future it shows is almost here, voice assistants like Apple’s Siri have revolutionised human-machine interaction, and as further steps are made along this path, and situations like that of Her aren’t uncommon – a recent BBC documentary on the declining birth rate in Japan partially credits the advent of girlfriend simulators for some of the decline. When interviewing two users of these games, it is revealed one is in a relationship with a real women – and states if it came to a choice between the two – human and artificial – he wouldn’t be able to pick. How far is it for the next step – how long will it be till we see humans take the step as AI proxies for a sexual relationship?
This may be the extreme end of the scale, but next time you’re in a public place, on the tube, or the bus, or even sat outside in a pub or restaurant, look around at the other members of the public, the majority will be on their phones. Look closer and they will be talking to them. The future of Her is going to arrive sooner than you think.
Her is a refreshing look at romance, relationships, and Artificial Intelligence. Beautifully shot, with a surprisingly deep and mature story, and excellent acting, Her is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, if ever, – and I know being barely into January, that’s a big declaration, but it is well earned To put it bluntly – If you get the opportunity, watch this film.