April 6, 2020

“Her” Review: Glowing With Moments of Warmth and Frost

by Danial Cousins
This review contains (minor) spoilers.

Her has a simple, yet unique premise. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a paid writer of “Beautiful Letters” on a website, falls in love with an Artificial Intelligence, or OS (Operating System, as they are referred to in the film) named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Writer/director Spike Jonze immediately creates a beautiful yet seemingly empty world in the opening moments. Most every shot in the film is filled with color and light, which either juxtaposes or brings vibrancy to the emotions of Theodore. The combination of visuals, music, and actors’ performances are enrapturing throughout the film.

Her is a movie about growth within relationships. This film expresses the fear consistently of a loved one growing apart from us. The thought of a significant other is changing from the person you have fallen in love with can certainly be frightening. As Theodore finds out, it is often this fear that harms a relationship the most. Theodore experiences this with his former wife Catherine, and yet again with Samantha. There is something so human about the fears within Theodore, and his self-conscious paranoia, tearing apart the things in his life which bring him happiness. Theodore often denies praise of his eloquent writing, and denies his feelings for Samantha under the notion that her emotions “aren’t real.” This is what makes the audience cling to him, because we believe the key to him achieving happiness is overcoming this fear. We learn that if a loved one does grow to a point in which they can not prioritize your love, or their feelings for you, it was your growth in the time you have spent together that was special. It is agony, but necessary to move on. 

Her manages to redefine, or at least strengthen, preconceived yet under-supported conceptions of love and existence. From the moment of Samantha’s creation, Theodore has doubts about just how real she is. He often makes the mistake of referring to Samantha as a computer, or speaking to her as if she were merely a voice command system. Yet, it is in the moments which Theodore thinks not about whether Samantha “really exists” where we see the most beauty in their relationship. When Theodore is caught up in these beautiful, colorful, silly, and passionate moments, he catches himself believing in the life within Samantha. Contrasting this, it is when Theodore is caught up in the perils of his late marriage, and self hatred, that he doubts Samantha and his own ability to love. It is in these moments of doubt when he goes to a trusted friend, as all of us should, to strengthen our passions and understand our feelings. Theodore speaks to his friend Amy (Amy Adams) in his lowest moments of doubt and fear, to reassess his priorities through platonic love. In the end this turns out to be one of love’s purest forms.
Phoenix and Amy Adams became close friends on set.

Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson do incredible work in creating the unique, but humane emotional reactions of their characters. Samantha is effectively born at the start of the film, she has all of existence to discover, and she’s understandably frightened. It is a truly incredible performance for Johannson to deal with the completely unique and unprecedented circumstances of perceiving the world as a hyper intelligent operating system, battling with feelings of fear and existential crisis. Theodore sees the world as a human feeling similarly lost, but he is unable to personally relate these emotions to others. His fatal flaws of hesitance and doubt bring him pain and misery and it is his pursuit of overcoming these emotions that is so riveting within Phoenix’s performance. Referring specifically to a scene in which Theodore believes he has lost Samantha for good, because she does not appear on his phone. Phoenix expresses several real and vivid emotions starting with terror in the face of Samantha’s death, that really paint Theodore’s perceptions of the world in the most tangible colors. It is because of these precisely written and acted characters, that this piece feels so very human, in spite of one of the lead characters being artificial intelligence.

As for the existence of Samantha, I believe it comes across clearly in the film that she lives as much as any other character in the film. She perceives the world in a very different way than a human, as an OS. However, she does perceive and change as a conscious being. I believe that it is precisely Samantha’s ability to eventually identify her existence as the story goes on that makes her alive. The film’s title seems to strengthen this point, referring to Samantha as “Her.” This is a clear homage to gender identities: Samantha does not have a body and therefore inherently her sex cannot be identified as female. Yet, it is her mind, personality, and feelings that cause her to cling to the gender of the female and the pronoun “Her.” I personally believe this was a clever and effective way of making the audience identify a being without the “sex organs of a female,” as a woman nonetheless. 

This film makes the audience feel so much throughout its 2 hour 6 minute runtime, and proceeds not to make a clear-cut, set in stone messages to the audience, but rather provoking intense thought, doubt, and a multitude of other intense feelings. This movie is genuinely beautiful on so many levels. If I were forced to give constructive criticism, and being nit-picky, I would ask that the film make the methods in which people hear Samantha more clear. There are a few scenes in which I don’t believe it’s clear how people hear Samantha, considering Theodore is the only one with the earbud in. 

I would highly recommend this film to anyone. It is a movie that I’ve come back to several times, that seemingly brings chills to my breath and heart, simulating universal agony and relief. [Grade: A]

Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Spike Jonze, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams
Rated: R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity
Available: Netflix
Fun Fact: No one can be seen wearing a belt at any point during the film.

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