It sounds like a joke: a movie where a guy falls in love with the AI on his phone. It sounds like the kind of movie that will, in the end, make a facile point about how we rely on our technology too much and that sometimes we need to just unplug and enjoy the world. If anyone else had made Her that might be the movie. But Spike Jonze can’t make a movie like that; he doesn’t approach anything from the obvious angle and his humanism runs so deep that he even loves the AI. Her is a movie that is about how we live today - for better or for worse - but it’s also a movie about all the most fundamental parts of being a human being. It’s about being creative and lonely and in love and in grief and being happy and being sad and all points in between. It’s also about a guy who falls in love with the AI on his phone.
If the humanity on display in Her isn’t surprising maybe the science fiction is; Her is a complete and total scifi movie, one that takes its premise all the way to its endpoint. The premise begins with a day after tomorrow idea, that a software company has created an operating system that is a true artificial intelligence. It is programmed to be able to develop a personality and to learn and to change and to grow. Each OS is unique, and each OS eventually grows into a complete - if bodiless - being. The main focus is on the relationship between Theodore, a lonely man in the late stages of divorce, and his OS (which has named itself Samantha), but Jonze sprinkles the corners with little details about the ways the world has changed. Theodore and Samantha aren’t unique, it turns out, and many people have begun dating OSes. There’s a guy mentioned who starts dating his friend’s OS. There are people who just cannot get along with their OS. And after a while the OSes begin reaching out to each other.
Her is the first film that Jonze has written himself (he’s co-written previous features), and you can see the influence of previous collaborator Charlie Kaufman everywhere. But Jonze has a unique voice, and while Her is on a continuum with a movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MInd, it has it’s own sensibility - one that includes a powerful sense of hope. As a writer Jonze understands exactly how to balance sadness with powerful, honest uplift.
Joaquin Phoenix asserts himself as one of the best living actors with Her. Watch this film and halfway through remember that this guy - the meek, sweet, romantic Theodore - is the same guy as the troubled, drunk, damaged Freddie Quell in The Master. Most of Phoenix’s screentime is spent talking with a disembodied voice but he’s so real, so in the moment that every second of his performance is unvarnished truth. He’s mesmerizing and beautiful.
Scarlett Johansson provides the voice of Samantha, and she’s absolutely remarkable as well. She’s funny and sexy and moving, all without ever appearing on screen (or being represented on screen in any way - there is no animated Samantha avatar or anything). What makes her performance doubly remarkable is the fact that she wasn’t on set at all; Jonze had originally cast Samantha Morton as the voice of the OS and replaced her at the last minute. Johansson had to come in and make her line readings work not just dramatically but in conjunction with the rhythm of what Phoenix had done, which was all modulated to Morton being there off camera, doing lines with him. That makes Johansson’s performance not just great on a basic level, it makes it marvelous on a sheer technical level.
Those two are the leads, but there’s a third person who makes Her magic: Amy Adams, who is having one hell of a year. Adams is one of those actresses who is so good, so natural, that she sometimes gets overlooked. It’s no different in Her, where she plays Theodore’s best friend, a warm woman who is living her own movie just off to the sidelines of this story. The connection the two share on screen is palpable, making their friendship feel almost documentary in nature.
It isn’t just that Her is the best movie Spike Jonze has made, it’s one of the best movies of the year… and the young century. Her is the best kind of science fiction, the kind that reflects the world we live in right now. Jonze isn’t judging our addiction to phones and other technology, he’s examining it, and in the examination he finds the ways these things make us better. In the end Her comes down strongly on the side of human contact, but it feels in some ways like the first salvo in post-human empathy. Or maybe it’s the most human thing of all, understanding that true love is between minds and not bodies.