Spike Jonze is a co-founding member of MTV’s Jackass, a part owner of a skateboarding company, an award-winning director of commercials and music videos, the creative director of an online television channel, the editor of a teen music magazine, a BMX photographer, and who knows how many other things. Yet on top of all these eclectic interests he has managed to become the critical darling (or at least this particular critic’s darling) of the last fifteen years.
Her is Jonze’s fourth feature film as director and his first as sole writer (he co-wrote 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are with Dave Eggers, and his first two features were based on wildly imaginative Charlie Kaufman screenplays). The film cements Jonze’s status as a meaningful force not just in the worlds of hip hop, skating, and quirky movies, but in the world, period. This alternative Renaissance man has created a film that is as many things as he is: a free-ranging meditation on life, love, technology, art, isolation, and how they intersect. Her is the best new film I’ve seen in theaters since starting college.
Her is set in the Los Angeles of the not horribly distant future, following Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as he struggles to come to terms with his nearly finalized divorce. Towards the beginning of the film, Theodore purchases a new artificially intelligent operating system (an “OS”) for his phone and computer, a decision influenced by the haze of malaise that has plagued his recent wanderings. The operating system, who names herself Samantha, quickly becomes Theodore’s closest friend and, in a surprisingly organic development (considering that Samantha, as a piece of technology, is intrinsically inorganic), his lover.
Samantha is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who, through an astounding array of vocal inflections, creates as full and vibrant a personality as you’ll ever encounter in cinema. She is playful, inquisitive, scarily intelligent; with every breath, laugh, and question Samantha learns and grows as a person.
What does this curious, almost ethereal presence see in the timid, somewhat awkward Theodore? Theodore is surprisingly observant and feels a deep empathy even for strangers, making him the ideal window through which to view a novel and exciting world. The vaguely unsettling but endearing Phoenix inhabits his role so fully that we can’t imagine there is a part being played; we utterly believe he is Theodore Twombly.
In Her, the love story drives the film. While the premise screams comedy or satire (“Lonely man falls in love with a voice in his computer”), Her has the confidence to treat its central romance with gravity and respect. Because the movie cares about the human-OS relationship the same way it might care about any other, so do we. Samantha may be artificial but her emotional maturation is familiar, and we treat her as real. The title is telling: not it, but her.
Her is not only a romance, however; it is also brilliant science fiction. Jonze explores the creeping influence of our electronic gadgets on the way we interact with the world, crafting an array of tragicomic moments that force a sober examination of our own present society. Without preaching or editorializing, he makes us uncomfortably conscious of technology’s pervasive ubiquity and the isolation this can engender, then allows us to form our own opinion. (My take: I’m moving to the mountains.) These visions seem to have come from a sort of Oracle at Dell®-phi, and Jonze is masterful as high priest and interpreter.
Jonze gradually clues us in that Theodore and Samantha are but a case study in a larger species-wide attempt to cope with this groundbreaking artificial intelligence. Throughout Los Angeles—and presumably elsewhere—friendships and romances have sprouted up between humans and OS’s, as well as between OS’s themselves. Individuals are divided on how to interpret these relationships: are they incomplete replacements for inter-human relations or a valid and rewarding substitution? More to the point: what does it mean to be human? Her is perhaps at its smartest in those sections where Samantha explores the ways in which she precisely is and is not human. The movie doesn’t treat Samantha as less than human, but it is also aware that she and the other operating systems are different from us.
In addition to the OS’s, Jonze inserts a number of smaller touches to flesh out his future LA, from a subtly-altered wardrobe (I predict high-waisted pants are the next big thing), to immersive (and hilarious) futuristic video games, to Theodore’s fascinating occupation, the details of which I would rather you find out for yourself. Even the lighting and cinematography suggest something slightly changed, slightly new.
But again, this thought-provoking backdrop is secondary to the intimate story of Theodore and Samantha. Theodore’s post-marriage stasis is assailed by Samantha’s sheer dynamism, and cannot survive the battle. The script’s reflective and searching dialogue dares to embrace the philosophical while maintaining a fundamental honesty. The film is thoughtful, nearly somber, but somehow undeniably joyous.
The role of artificial intelligence in this story is so perfect because it makes Samantha the ideal student. She soaks up new information more efficiently than any mere human could, making her journey an accelerated case of the typical human life. Her paints this life as one long educational process in which our experiences inform our perceptions. Jonze uses Samantha’s journey of constant discovery and inquiry to skillfully examine that most hackneyed yet ambitious of questions: what is love?
I have not mentioned Amy Adams, who nails her role as a supportive friend of Theodore’s. I have not mentioned Arcade Fire, who crafted a wondrous score. I have not mentioned a million other things that the film does right. With Her, there is magic in the process of discovering it all for yourself—the same magic that teaches Samantha the wonder of human emotion. What could be more important in life and love than learning empathy, how to feel what another creature feels? Spike Jonze has given us a film about how to do precisely this. And if the audience is to learn, we cannot be fed answers and beliefs. We must learn by doing, by truly losing ourselves in the characters on screen as they watch, listen, experience, reflect, strive—and then, feel.
Dayton Martindale is a junior in the Astrophysical Sciences department.