Spike Jonze’s Her Explores Relationships, Technology, and More

Like many of you, I devoted no small portion of my winter break to an epic media binge — catching up on all the television, games, and movies I missed over the fall semester. As you’d expect, I particularly dedicated myself to tackling that last category of entertainment. Over the month of vacation I managed to see nearly every recent film release that had previously eluded my grasp (you are safe for now, The Great Beauty, but soon you shall be mine…), including every Academy Awards Best Picture nominee. There are some undeniably brilliant movies in the mix there, and I’ll have more to say about them in later columns this month, but there is one film in particular that I still find myself ranting about to whoever will listen: Her.

As you may already know, Her is the latest feature film from director Spike Jonze. It is also his second full-length movie without the idiosyncratic voice of Charlie Kaufman behind the script. Kaufman and Jonze’s previous collaborations (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) were widely hailed as masterpieces by critics and gained cult followings. However, Spike Jonze’s 2009 adaptation (haha!) of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, for which Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers wrote the screenplay, certainly did not receive the same universal praise. Personally, I found Where the Wild Things Are to be a beautiful and ambitious movie, but mostly devoid of memorable stories or characters — I can clearly picture certain breathtakingly gorgeous moments (such as the scale-model island and the dirt-clod fight) but, hard as I try, I can’t remember how these sequences even fit together. Despite being uniquely brilliant visually, it was simply poorly written. The point is, as soon as I learned that Spike Jonze was the sole writer of Her, concerns cropped up in my mind. However, I can enthusiastically tell you that any doubts I may have had regarding Jonze’s writing ability have been completely blown away. 

Her is set in the not-too-distant future; a world much like our own but with somewhat more advanced technology. The story follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer in early middle age who has mostly withdrawn from the world after being legally separated from his wife. His only direct social interaction is limited to superficial conversations with old friends and his boss as he flits between his apartment and office. Otherwise, his social needs are filled by the Internet, in the many-splendored forms of video games and sex chat rooms.

Life begins to change for Theodore, however, when he downloads a new, artificially intelligent operating system (OS) for his phone and computer. Molded to his personality, the OS takes on the identity of a charming, witty female, who promptly dubs herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As Samantha and Theodore converse, they both begin to grow: Samantha’s personality becomes more complex as Theodore begins to open up to the world once more. And, eventually, they begin a romantic relationship, the likes of which cinema has never seen before.

Now, I will reveal no more of the plot beyond this point, as I fear that even the slightest hint may spoil the film for the convention-savvy of you. However, know this: I went into the theater expecting something akin to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (i.e. a thoughtful examination of identity and relationships through a sci-fi lens), but what I saw instead was something that delved much, much deeper. I use this example not to diminish Eternal Sunshine, but rather to give a reference point for how truly astonishing Her is; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is more than great, but Her is transcendental. There are literally only two other films that I have come out of with the same unshakable feeling of connection with life and the universe — Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day.

Without spoiling the plot, I can also tell you this: Her continued 2013’s delightful trend of film actors giving impressive performances in unprecedented territory. Just as Gravity called on Sandra Bullock to experiment with the conventions of acting to fit the film’s pioneer approach to shooting, Joaquin Phoenix manages to sell the audience something that I believe has never been tried before in mainstream cinema: He carried on an entire romance with a literally disembodied voice. While Bullock’s performance might be fairly criticized for its lack of nuance, the same simply cannot be said of Phoenix, who maintains, for every moment of the film, an emotional complexity that might rival even Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Johansson deserves a great deal of praise as well. Despite having been brought onto the film in post-production, after all of the footage had been shot, her voice acting manages to fit seamlessly into every scene. In fact, Johansson brings Samantha to life so authentically, it was nearly unsettling. This unsettling feeling — sometimes referred to as “the uncanny valley” in the field of robotics — is normally used in reference to the physical appearance of robots, but Her could serve as a good example of how this concept may be applied to speech as well.

There are so many amazing elements to this film that I wish I could tell you about: its clever inversion of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope (“Manic Pixie Dream Bot?”), the bittersweet humanist philosophy of Jonze and Kaufman, a sex scene that perfectly captures the sentiments that TSL sex columnist C. Frisky and I attempted to convey in our collaborative article last semester, and so much more. However, this is not the place. I hate having movies spoiled for me, and I don’t want to discourage casual readers who feel the same way. 

So, I implore you to go see Her for yourself, and, afterward, if you’re interested in hearing a couple of film nerds talk about it and other topics related to cinema, check out my new show, Out of Breath, premiering next week on CCTV.

Dan Brown PO ’16 is a media studies major. You can check out his show, Out of Breath, on the Claremont Colleges Television channel on Youtube. 

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