A lonely guy in a not-so-distant future falls in love with a computer. Sounds like a joke, right? Or perhaps it could be interpreted as some sort of cautionary parable condemning modern society’s reliance on technology. Her, however, is neither of those things, as director Spike Jonze takes this seemingly cynical premise and spins it into something surprisingly heartfelt, unabashedly emotional, and genuinely resonant.
Her catches protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) at an odd crux in his life. His wife (Rooney Mara) has left him, but he still can’t bring himself to sign the divorce papers and instead turns to a seemingly-sentient computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) for comfort. The OS, which names itself Samantha, is intelligent and more than just an automated question and answer system. She helps Theodore with everyday tasks, while he, in turn, helps her develop a personality as their relationship deepens.
Theodore is lonely and conflicted, but avoids the tortured soul movie trope by proving himself perfectly adept both at work and in social situations, putting on the brave face as most of us would aspire to have in his situation. It’s this quality that makes Theodore so likeable — he’s not mopey and whiney around his friends and coworkers; he’s smart and charming. In many other indie romances movies featuring archetypal lonely white males (I’m looking at you, Lars and the Real Girl), the physical and emotional awkwardness of isolation, especially around women, comes off as disingenuous. Theodore doesn’t gain his charm from stuttering, shuffling, or blinking really hard every five seconds. He’s a normal guy trying to make the best of a shitty situation. He’s funny and charismatic, as demonstrated when he goes on a blind date that goes wrong not because of his awkwardness, but because he and his date would genuinely just be better off as really great drinking buddies. This personality mechanic provides a great contrast against the quiet moments at night when he’s lying in bed by himself, making his silence isolation that much more potent. The script is incredibly smart, articulating universal feelings and emotions that seem impossible to define with clarity and resonance. In any other context, many of the movie’s lines could easily feel cheesy or over-sentimental, but the cast of Her delivers them with refreshing sincerity.
Her is a bit on the quirky, indie-twee side, but it’s hard to get too caught up in the borderline-silly romanticization of Los Angeles and surplus of hip sweaters and high-waisted pants when it’s so stunning. Jonze’s past experience in directing music videos is evident in Her, as the movie plays like a lyrical piece infused seamlessly with both diegetic and nondiegetic music. Sound and visuals blur together, with the glowing blues and grays of the city skyline contrasted against the warmth of Samantha’s voice.
Her is a remarkable story written with both intelligence and sensitivity, approaching human emotion from a new perspective of curiosity and fascination. Sci-fi movies centered around advanced technology usually have some sort of contemptuous, derisive message about the trappings of artificial intelligence, but Her is a picture of honest optimism and an imaginable future that doesn’t seem all that bad.