There’s a reason I review more spy films than science fiction films; spy films, in my opinion, tend to be better. But if there were more SF films like Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), that balance might tip in the other direction. Her is beautiful, thoughtful science fiction – a visual feast with heart , that mingles a classic artificial intelligence plot with incisive commentary about the ironic disconnectedness of our wired, socially networked present.
The great Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombley – given the atmosphere of the film, could the Philip K. Dick ring to that name be more appropriate? Theodore is alone in a crowd, living in a future Southern California megalopolis, and he’s fallen on hard times in the wake of a divorce. His empty life involves a day job writing copy and nights immersed in video games or having awkward phone sex. Everything changes when he upgrades his personal operating system, and meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is an artificially intelligent, personal valet in the cloud – but she’s designed to be realistic, and to evolve. Rather than interacting with a servile subroutine, Theodore finds himself increasingly entangled in a complicated, evolving relationship with his OS, which turns out to be more emotionally charged than he ever expected. His feelings are real, but his girlfriend is not – or is she?
The film does have some flaws – a manipulative soundtrack overamps the melancholy at times, for example – and some unrealistic reaches. (Could somebody have a stable job as a dotcom copywriter and afford that apartment? Would powerful AIs of this nature be so casually, commercially available? Will moustaches and high-waisted slacks ever be back in? I’ll chalk those up to creative flourishes in the world-building.) Her is still a great film, and thought-provoking science fiction – both for its convincing, visually lush future-building, and its broader philosophical questions about identity and the nature of reality. Hollywood isn’t known for its nuanced, intelligent treatment of these types of ideas, but Her is refreshingly smart and clear-eyed with them. And, of course, the cast is terrific. Phoenix is a remarkably immersive actor, and he’s a wonderfully accessible window onto this future. Johansson is perfect voice casting for his disembodied love, and there’s fantastic support from a talented cast that includes Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Chris Pratt, among others. It all adds up to a quiet, moving, and atmospheric film about real characters with real problems in a real future. Heartfelt, touching, and imaginative stuff, and one of the best science fiction films I’ve seen in years.