Her Review

Posted: January 18, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Her-poster-417x586Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

“Do you remember the question that caused the creators to attack us, Tali’Zorah? Does this unit have a soul?” This is the question the A.I. character Legion posed in the third Mass Effect videogame and it speaks to one of the most common themes in science fiction; at what point is an artificial intelligence alive? Several short stories, novels, videogames, and films have addressed this question since the 20th century. This of course brings me to Her, the new science fiction film from acclaimed writer/director Spike Jonze. I’ve been excited to see this film since the first trailer and critics have strongly rallied behind it in recent weeks. Add on to all of that an awesome cast and a few Oscar nominations and I had every reason to see Her.

Set in a not too distant future Los Angeles, the film follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who makes his living writing other people’s letters. Theodore is a lonely man who is going through a long divorce process from his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and has become anti-social, with the only good relationship in his life being a platonic friendship with a girl named Amy (Amy Adams). One day he sees an ad for a new and advanced operating system. Theodore purchases one and after answering a few questions the OS is installed. The OS calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and she and Theodore quickly form a unique repertoire. As the two spend time together, Samantha begins to learn more about the world and as the two experience life together, they begin to fall in love.

Joaquin Phoenix has always been considered a strong actor, but I think it’s safe to say The Master was a revelation of his talents as an actor for everybody. Since seeing the film I’ve eagerly awaited to see what Phoenix would do next and he doesn’t disappoint here. He makes Theodore a very sympathetic character and delivers a lot of emotional moments. I also think Phoenix and Spike Jonze were smart not to turn Theodore into a creepy loser type character. He has his faults, but he genuinely seems a nice person and he’s also pretty charming at points. Phoenix’s work isn’t as awe-inspiring as in The Master, but it is a more down to Earth and relatable performance.

Speaking of The Master alumni, Amy Adams is great here in her supporting role. It isn’t an overly complex character, but Adams just makes her so likable and her scenes with Theodore really are a treat. In most hands, the character would have seemed fairly average, but in Adams, who might just be my favourite working actress, she becomes something more. And then of course we have Scarlett Johansson as Samantha. Johansson’s role is naturally composed entirely of voice work and she does a great job. Through her subtle vocal inflections, Johansson creates a really complete character out of Samantha and also goes through a considerable arc. It might be the best performance Johansson has ever given. Rooney Mara is also pretty strong in her small appearances.

I also liked the future Spike Jonze depicts in Her. Most sci-fi films go large with their visuals but Her appropriately goes for the intimate. The combination of shooting Los Angeles and Shanghai makes for a visually interesting future city. The interiors like Theodore’s apartment also have a cool look which is slightly futuristic but also feels plausible. The movie also has some sharp cinematography and the score by Arcade Fire is appropriate. Jonze also manages to create some solid scenes and his dialogue is pretty clever and at times witty.

Some readers may have noticed I’ve avoided talking about the film’s high concept of a man and an operating system falling in love in great detail. The reason being while I do find the concept intriguing, the execution is where I find the film at its most flawed. I was excited to see how Jonze would use the central relationship to explore larger themes but that isn’t really the focus here. In fact in many ways Her plays out like a standard romance film, albeit one with a unique high concept. I think Jonze was so concerned audiences wouldn’t accept a romance between an A.I. and a human that he went out of his way to make the relationship seem as real as possible. The problem is there’s only so much I can invest into this type of relationship which is at best unsustainable and at worst creepy and weird.

This wouldn’t have been as problematic had the larger themes been at the forefront of the story, but they aren’t. While there certainly are themes to ponder such as our dependence on technology and what constitutes life, most of these are in the background and I don’t know if the film really sheds new light on those themes that other science-fiction films haven’t. The end result of all of this is a film that aims to satisfy on both an emotional and intellectual level without ever really excelling at either. Granted, the film does have its moments for both. Every so often I would find myself affecting emotionally, mostly from the very strong performances and the few scenes where the larger and original ideas are in the forefront are definitely a highlight. But as a whole neither element completely clicked with me.

I don’t want the last two paragraphs to imply Her isn’t a good film because it is. In fact in spite of its flaws, I’d probably still say Her is a great film. I do wish it had handled its high concept better, but the rest of the filmmaking is undeniably strong and there’s a lot to enjoy here. The fact is I spend all year asking for more ambitious films and this is one of the few films to really go there. The overall product is far from perfect, but it had the courage to take that leap and there’s something to be said for that.

A-

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