Her stars Joaquin Phoenix with a tour-de-force performance in what is not only Spike Jonze’s most accomplished work since 2002’s Adaptation. but his greatest masterpiece yet. Set in the near-future (it looks like it would be sometime in the 2020s, although it is never fully established), Her tells the story of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who is battling his melancholia and trying to gain the strength to sign his divorce papers from the love of his life, Catherine (Rooney Mara). One day after work – he pens letters on behalf of other people – he walks past an advert for OS¹, the world’s first operating system with an artificial intelligence. Intrigued, Theodore buys it and soon finds himself confronted with the voice of a female AI, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who understands him like nobody has in a long time. He falls in love with her – and she with him.
Theodore is a reclusive romantic at heart (illustrated beautifully through his passion for his work), and spurred on by his best friend Amy (Amy Adams) pursues his feelings for the new woman in his life. The initial sadness here stems from the fact that the audience knows that Samantha is only a rebound, and that it can’t end well. The film’s merit lies in having you clueless all the way to the end about how their relationship will fall apart.
Make no mistake: Her isn’t a love story. Her isn’t even about how techology influences human life. Catherine is the only person in the film who doesn’t understand Theodore’s love for an AI – keeping in tune with her character as symbolising not only Theodore’s past but that of an outdated mindset (which, intriguingly, is the audience’s present). In fact, when talking to the receptionist at his workplace, Paul (Chris Pratt), Theodore’s mention that Samantha is an OS doesn’t even get as much as the bat of an eyelid by Paul or his girlfriend. You can’t help but feel that this acceptance is a succinct metaphor for society’s current battle to accept homosexuality and non-cisgender identities. In the future, we’ve overcome that pitiful state: love is love, period.
Visually whimsical and, thankfully, very held back on futuristic landscapes, Her lives off of the dialogue between Theodore and Samantha. Indeed, she never takes a physical form – strangely, as you might argue, since such a feat would be technologically trivial, and so surely a very conscious choice by Jonze. It’s a great choice at that, since you are forced to put yourself into their minds, this third space beyond the screen that only really exist between him and her. This feeling is not only reinforced by blacking out the screen completely when they first have sex with each other, but also through a rather creepy but powerful scene when Samantha has a girl act as her surrogate so that she and Theodore can be physically intimate.
Phoenix delivers a heart-crushing performance as he goes from depressed loner to crazily in love to lost soul. Jonze manages to constantly wrap you in a sense of melancholia even in the film’s happier moments, as the world continuously breaks down around and inside Theodore. Scarlett Johansson carries much of the film merely with her voice as she discovers her identity and grows with and eventually beyond Theodore. Chris Pratt is poignantly held back in his portrayal of Paul, while Amy Adams’ plays the understanding friend with the beautiful restraint that’s needed to leave the screen to Phoenix and Johansson.
Her might be set in the future and feature an AI, but it is ultimately a powerful, honest look at human relationships, particularly of love and the end of it. We fake things – like Samantha fakes sighing when talking to Theodore – and we let ourselves get carried away by the bubble we create around ourselves and fill with little truths. We laugh, we love, we cry – and in the end it doesn’t so much matter who caused those emotions, the important thing is that we felt them at all.
Her would have “only” received a rating of 4.5 stars, but as the movie fades out, Theodore breathes in and sighs – a minute and wonderful detail that elevates Jonze’s latest film to perfection. This is one not to miss, despite its depiction of a future in which horrible moustaches are en vogue.