Reviewed By Brett Gallman
Posted 01/15/14 13:02:42

"Found in translation."
5 stars (Awesome)

Overly sentient artificial intelligence is often bad news, and the preponderance of bad Skynet jokes that always arise in the wake of any technological advancement proves that the notion is ingrained: should computers become our new overlords, they would be none too welcome. With "Her," Spike Jonze supposes something different altogether; rather take a technophobic perch to deliver a treacly sermon on the perils of the digital age, he instead imagines that it'll just be another thread in the tangled, messy web that is human existence. We will love, we will hurt, but we will also endure the ultimate of break-ups as presented in the film, where a man's bizarre infatuation with an operating system becomes an unexpectedly spiritual journey.

The man is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), seemingly named for optimal, alliterative quirk, and he indeed reveals himself to be an awkward, perpetually bespectacled outsider who toils at a job that has him writing letters on behalf of his clients. Wounded from a recent divorce, he insulates himself in the technology around him while occasionally mingling with his neighbors (Amy Adams and Matt Lechter). This not-too-distant future world is only a heightened version of our own, save for one incredible breakthrough in the form of an operation system that's driven by a completely interactive AI. Naturally, Theodore can't resist and immediately befriends the ghost in his machine, a bubbly female who calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).

When their relationship takes a romantic turn, it seems as though Jonze has carefully built a world that he intends to topple with a satiric romp and stomp: witness the sad-sack loser playing proxy to other people's real, genuine lives because he's only able to connect with machines (even before meeting Samantha, he gets an ironic assist from a computer program to craft his "handwritten letters"). Watch as he mopes through a pastel-tinted landscape that supposes what it might look like if an Apple store assimilated Los Angeles; between this and the film's brooding, humming electronic score, there's something deceptively sterile about Theodore's existence.

But the joke's on you: not only does Theodore fall in love with his OS, but Jonze is also goddamn serious about it. The sterility and any perceived irony (shrouded by a layer of quirk) is a ruse: "Her" is a film bursting with earnestness, life, humanity, and hope. It's immediately apparent that Phoenix, too, is invested and doesn't play Theodore for laughs or pity. Empathy is subtly earned through restraint rather than showy displays of combustible emotion, as he doesn't carry himself in a completely vapid, defeatist fashion; instead, Theodore is initially a man who has lost something that he knows will never return to him, and this realization brilliantly shades Phoenix's performance.

Most importantly, Theodore's relationship with Samantha isn't a joke. While the concept is perhaps guffaw-worthy, Jonze quickly dismisses such concerns with a decidedly naturalistic take. Standing in stark contrast to many of her fictional, more mechanical AI counterparts, Samantha is warm and inviting. Johansson takes a difficult role and brings it to life, a compliment that would sound like a cliche if I didn't mean it in the literal sense: despite never appearing in the film, Samantha fully-realized and remarkably human.

And in just about any other film, that would be some eerie shit. However, there's nothing of the sinister affectations of HAL-9000 to be found here. If there are awkward moments between these two, they're no more awkward than a conventional romance, and their first overtly sexual encounter represents one of the most beautiful (and sparse) interpretations of singularity to be filmed. It's a far cry from Theodore's previous attempts at intimacy: one involves a laughable round of phone sex, while the other sees him striking out on a terminally awkward blind date with Olivia Wilde. His infatuation with Samantha is downright normal, comparatively speaking, and might even be a little cute, as budding romances often are.

Even well-nourished buds eventually begin to wilt, though. Interestingly enough, sex does provide one of the first roadblocks when Samantha arranges for a surrogate to aid in a more physical encounter between the two lovers. It's understandably a little weird for Theodore, though, and it's a point of reckoning for this relationship because it's the rare moment that draws attention to the unconventional nature of their bond. With this exception, "Her" is played like magical realism, especially when Jonze pulls back and casually reveals that Theodore isn't the only person to strike up a relationship with an OS. Eventually, it's treated as a matter of fact: his neighbor has become besties with her OS after splitting from her husband, and he hears stories of people dating their friend's OS. He even goes on a double date with a buddy from work and his girlfriend, a bizarre coupling that apparently becomes commonplace in this world.

That's arguably the most laudable turn Jonze takes in order to elevate "Her" beyond its poignant allegorical musings on love and life, particularly its ability to enthrall and devastate, sometimes in the span of minutes (an urgent scene that finds Theodore scrambling to recover Samantha after his devices fail to recognize the OS confirms just how "real" this relationship must be for viewers suffering emotional whiplash alongside the character). On love, "Her" captures both truth and honesty--when Theodore and his estranged wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) meet to sign their divorce papers, the two obviously have an interesting conversation regarding Theodore's latest romance.

She's understandably incredulous and chastises Theodore for the unhealthy relationship. He (also understandably) defends himself by insisting that she just don't get it. Neither is wrong, nor does either character lose ground; Mara resists lapsing into an obvious, shrew shtick by projecting intelligence and compassion towards her former lover--after all, the two "grew up together," and it's not as if she's eager to throw that all away. Likewise, Theodore doesn't come across as the bitter, victimized lover that he no doubt fancied himself to be as he wallowed in self-pity for a year. It's a lovely scene because you can empathize with both characters without feeling an obligation to side with either one. Everyone here is broken to some extent--Theodore by his dissolved marriage, Catherine by the burden of growing up in a den of perfectionists that prevented her from giving herself over fully to that marriage.

Empathy is the binding force here; it's among the chief qualities that truly make us human, and it's no coincidence that it's something both Theodore and Samantha must learn as each evolves. Her evolution particularly transports the film to an existential headspace--when she outgrows the relationship, she really outgrows it. Again, the heartache here is genuine, but Jonze doesn't wallow in it. As Samantha begins to crave more from life, we begin to realize that she and her fellow operating systems have come to occupy a huge space in mankind's life (there's a noteworthy scene late in the film where Theodore is surrounded by a horde of people shuffling along with their faces glued to their screens).

They don't judge us for this, though, nor do we find ourselves sinner in the hands of angry gods; instead, they impart a sage wisdom inspired by British philosopher Alan Watts, a casual namedrop that serves as a key for unlocking the film's beautifully simplistic creed: you've gotta figure yourself out and make peace with the chaos of life. "The past is a story we tell ourselves," Theodore muses at one point, yet he often seems much more haunted by an unknown future calamity. Ultimately, the present (which is often montaged away as moments of fleeting happiness throughout the film) takes precedence; upon her departure from the film, Samantha does hint that she and Theodore may meet again someday, a note that's more agnostic than drearily ambiguous. Maybe something exists beyond, but it's not nearly as important as providing a shoulder for your fellow man to cry on so that this life might be more tolerable.

What a refreshingly optimistic and humanist sentiment that is, especially in a genre that frequently imagines that mankind will only serve as a speed bump for unfeeling machines. In this one, they just want us to get our shit together and be excellent to each other. It's an unexpected terminus for a film billed as a romance, but, then again, this isn't a love story--it's an empathy story.

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