Can I call Her the best sci fi movie of 2013? Maybe Pacific Rim is my favorite, but I’d look silly calling it the best. Gravity is really, amazingly good – but just because it’s set in space doesn’t make it sci fi, does it? I mean, we’ve been hanging out up there for a while now, and as far as I can tell that movie’s set in the present. Really, it’s just a disaster movie. But Her? Now that is some good old fashioned, hard core sci fi. You just might not notice it when it’s wrapped in such a relatable, dare I say human, shell.
I bet the pitch for this movie was: “What if someone fell in love with Siri?” It’s the future. Not the distant future, not some dystopia, but a few years from now. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in LA, and he’s been trying to deal with his divorce from Rooney Mara by giving up much of his social life. He spends his time quietly coasting, listening to his computer read email and play melancholy music when he’s out in public, hardly interacting with anyone. But it’s been hard, especially because he spends his days working at a company that writes beautiful, heartfelt, handwritten letters. It is in this state that one day, seemingly on a lark, he buys a new operating system; the first with artificial intelligence. But as he gets to know his new digital companion, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), Ted quickly finds out he got a lot more than he paid for.
There are a few predictable paths I could go on from here: I could talk about how Scarlett Johansson’s performance is confounding award shows across the country is fitting, given that how to treat an OS is one of the central dilemmas of the movie. But that’s probably more overhyped marketing than a real, significant controversy. I could write about how great sci fi always deals with real problems, whether they be the issues of the day or ideas bigger and more universal than that. But everyone knows that’s the case already, and it doesn’t speak to why this movie is unique.
So what makes Her special? For one, it’s deeply intimate. A movie like this, with only one physical lead, demands that actor bear his soul for us. Joaquin Phoenix, hot off his stellar, challenging performance in The Master, shows us something very different, but just as insightful, here. A lot of Her is spent in close up, looking at Ted as he processes his new life. But thankfully, he is never made to seem overly sad or pathetic. He’s lost, but he wants to be found, and he wasn’t always this way. As easy as it is to fall in love with ScarJo’s Samantha, the movie also makes it clear why she would love him.
Samantha is charming, and watching (or listening to) her growth is the joy of this movie. I don’t know what inspired the casting of Scarlett Johansson, but let any doubts be cast aside – she gives a great performance. She’s immediately disarmingly compassionate and hits all the right beats as she transcends her programming and begins to wonder what she really is and how she really feels. I did wonder if the knowledge of how beautiful a woman Scarlett Johansson is in the real world affected my reaction to Samantha in the movie. After all, in the movie she has to compete with a Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde as a voice in a box, which might have been a tougher sell without knowing that yeah, she’s actually really beautiful too. I mean, maybe, right?
The movie has a distinctive, colorful, clean look. There are some weird visuals, but mostly everything is as spartan and pretty as tech companies like Apple would want the future to be. The movie’s set in future LA, but it doesn’t really feel like anything but itself; a metropolis full of people and spectacle, but easy to feel alone in. That feel is surely enhanced by the score by Arcade Fire, which, for my money, is better than Reflektor. As I left the theater I started to wonder if “Supersymmetry” had just become my favorite song on that album just because of this movie. It’s really good.
I also loved how gentle and open-minded Her was in its approach to its subject. It would be so easy for a story like this to twist itself into a story about perversion and sickness, about a character’s disconnection from reality. Her almost entirely avoids that pitfall. The movie never really fights against that idea that an AI has rights or deserves to be treated well, despite it being the centerpiece of so many iconic Star Trek episodes. It never looks down on anyone for following their heart. At most, it just questions the logistics of certain things. Her embraces love in any form, and I love it for that.
We are the first generation in human history that is being directly shaped by technology. We are growing up in a time when online connections are not only important, but can take precedence over real world ones. Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde exist in this story to remind us of the potential downside of that. Maybe it’s not ideal, but Her shows us that it doesn’t have to be the end of the world, either. This is a story about a bunch of people whose lives are shaped by technology. It’s a story about love. It’s a story about life. And it’s hard to find fault in that.