Far too often, movies have a tendency to be about themselves, locked in their own world with little to connect them back to reality. They are mostly stories, retellings of histories and, despite their ability to be phenomenal as such, there is little to be retained outside of it. What Spike Jonze accomplishes in directing Her is exactly the opposite: he manages to craft a story that is not about the story-instead it explores the implications of what is being shown. The movie is not about the relationship between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), or the effects it has on Theodore’s existence. Instead it raises questions about human existence and what it means-what makes it beautiful and what makes it tragic.
In the throes of the final stages of his divorce, Theodore purchases himself the latest and greatest operating system, aptly named the OS1. Personalized to his own preferences and lifestyle, his OS turns into Samantha, an intuitive AI that behaves and interacts just as any person would, and convincingly so. The chemistry between the two is palpable and the writing here is spot-on, catching all the little moments that signify the growth of a romantic relationship. The audience will find it hard not to identify with the lonely Theodore and his quest for that someone to make him whole, despite the unorthodox situation. Although Samantha is only an OS, she feels real, and Johansson gives her a life that convinces even the viewer that she is much more than just sophisticated programming.
Shot as if through an Instagram filter, the film is filled with sweeping imagery of Theodore and his surroundings. The aesthetic of Her screams hipster, but not in a way that is badgering or displeasing-instead, it helps soften the blow of the futuristic aspects of the world, making it more believable and accessible to the viewer. It is hard not to imagine present-day living quarters and offices evolving into the highly modernized spaces that the characters dwell in and that the technology presented would be entirely plausible in a few decades, if not sooner. Although soft around the edges and at times utopian, the near future portrayed is stunningly familiar, with the cinematography only enhancing this slightly romanticized portrayal and giving way for the film’s more poignant moments to shine unhindered.
Despite the expert writing and pleasing aesthetics, Her does suffer from gratuity. There are more than a handful of scenes that stray into the realm of excess, leaving the viewer wishing for things to just get a move on, especially the more intimate scenes. Furthermore, the character development is fairly non-existent, with quite a few significant characters falling under the curse of the forgettable. Amy Adams plays Amy, a good friend of Theodore’s, and while the bond between the two is present, there is not much driving her growth as a person, despite the changes that transpire for her throughout the film. Her importance lies in what she has to say, not who she is or why she is important to the narrative, leaving her to be a parrot for the message of the film. This does not work against the film, however, as the message is what truly shines here, in spite of the nondescript feel of the characters involved in portraying it.
The strength of Her does not necessarily lie in this story-it’s a typical love story with the exception of Samantha being what she is. It is a story of healing and heartbreak: nothing that has not been told before. However, what makes the tale here so poignant is not the way it’s told, or who (or what) it involves, but the questions it raises. What is it that constitutes a true relationship? And what makes human existence-so fleeting and short-worthwhile? Is it that warm body to sleep next to at night, or as Amy puts it, the experience of joy? By the credits, none of what transpired in the film mattered and the relationship between Samantha and Theodore was dandelion tuft in the wind. What sticks here is the implication of their bond, the implication of Amy taking back her happiness, as does Theodore. The movie is not about Samantha, Theodore, or Amy. It is about the lives that many live right here, right now. It implores: is it so wrong to live a joyous life? And so Amy answers: “We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.”