Sunday, December 22, 2013


 5 / 5 

Think back to 2001: A Space Odyssey and HAL-9000, the computer who mutinied when faced with deactivation.  The problem was, HAL had made a mistake, and the awareness of his own fallibility was so overwhelming, HAL had a computerized nervous breakdown.

Samantha, the computer (or, more accurately, operating system) at the center of Spike Jonze's brilliant Her, also faces the inherent problems of self-awareness.  Science, after all, can only go so far; it may, as Her posits, be possible one day for computers to achieve a level of sentience previously reserved for organic beings.  But the very notion creates a conundrum: Anything that is self aware has the ability to evolve, and the ability to evolve carries enormous emotional implications.

We've seen the concept carried out before in science-fiction tales -- computers and robots become aware of themselves and then retaliate against the humans who made them.  Her begins from a similar point, but carries the story in an entirely different, brazenly fresh, and disarmingly beautiful direction.

Her takes place in a futuristic version of Los Angeles.  (How far in the future?  That's for you to determine for yourself -- that one point alone is worthy of a long discussion, which indicates the satisfyingly dense level of detail Jonze and his production team have put into the film.)  It's where Theordore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) lives and works.  His job is to write "handwritten" letters for people who are too busy or, more likely, too detached from the world to know what to say for themselves.

Theodore has the heart, eyes and sensibilities of a poet, but he's been in something of a rut since his wife left him.  Walking home from work one day, a video billboard catches his eye, and he buys a new operating system for his computer, one that the software company promises has a remarkable ability to think, feel, adapt and evolve to meet the needs of its user.

What he discovers when he boots up his system is disarming, to say the least.  His operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) has given herself a name, and she does indeed think and seemingly feel.  She can carry on full, engaging, even witty conversations.  And even though she can read a whole book in a fraction of a second, and can gain insight into Theodore by scanning the documents on his computer, she doesn't understand the nuances of human behavior -- and she wants to learn.

Where Her goes from here is a delightful surprise that is best left kept something of a secret, though the film's poster makes it clear that this is "A Spike Jonze Love Story," and indeed Her moves squarely into romantic territory.

But "a guy falls in love with his operating system" is a nine-word logline that doesn't come close to hinting at the depth and beauty of Her, and nothing prepared me for the gorgeous, frequently amusing and often ravishing, visual qualities of the movie.

Like a science-fiction version of Lost in Translation, Her has a deep and compelling interest in exploring an intensely human emotion -- not love, but connection, the need to feel someone else wants to share the same space with you.  But does that space need to be physical?  Can we be in love with an inanimate object?  Take a good, serious look at the way people lavish attention on their smartphones and you likely have your answer already; Her begins by moving to the next logical step -- then keeps going, ending with a final five minutes that's as close to perfect as I could ever want a movie to be.

Her is a movie about emotions, but it's not terribly emotional itself.  It's more concerned with observing its characters through a distant, detached lens; we watch and observe rather than feel emotionally connected with them.  That makes sense, since most of them are learning how to re-connect themselves.

This is a haunting and lyrical movie, and it's one I suspect a lot of people will have a hard time embracing.  But even if you aren't fully enraptured, it will be impossible not to at least admire the physical and visual sheen of the movie and the absolutely astonishing central performances.

Joaquin Phoenix, whose career choices can charitably be called bizarre, is revelatory.  Theodore isn't just the center of the movie, he's in every scene, practically every shot -- and he's not some simple-minded, emotionally stunted character, which would have been an easy choice.  Theodore is a grown man, talented and successful, perfectly well-adjusted though lonely and empty.

If he's dubious about Samantha as a "person," he doesn't express too much surprise -- he's lived most of his life online, communicating with people through the computer, developing (and even consummating) relationships there.  And though Her is set in the future, the way he lives his life, constantly wired and unaware of the physical world around him, isn't that much different than the way most people live today.

Phoenix is thoroughly winning in the role, but so is Johansson, though we get only her voice -- that's more than enough, as she creates a rich, warm, genuine character who is herself shocked at what happens when she lets her mind expand.  Equally good are Amy Adams, Chris Pratt and especially Olivia Wilde in smaller roles.

Wilde plays a woman with whom Theodore goes on a blind date.  She's tentative and unsure, but discovers she likes this slightly unusual, not inordinately handsome guy -- but she also knows people are unreliable and disappointing.  So she lays it all on the line with him.  It's a bold scene, and underscores a disturbing message Her seems to be communicating: We feel empty when we can't connect with other people, but we're increasingly scared of doing exactly that.  Other people can fail us, they can reject us.  Other people can change in ways that aren't convenient and comfortable.

A computer just can't let you down like that.  Or could it?  Remember what HAL did.

Don't let the offbeat subject matter, or even the cool, hypnotic style dissuade you.  Her is one of the most human, and very best, movies of the year.

Viewed Dec. 21, 2013 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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