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Movie review: 'Her' tells a cautionary love story in the vein of '2001'



In 1968, the Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey” explored the potential consequences of evolving technology, as a computer program developed a conscientiousness, personality, and feelings. That film has since become a classic, as well as a terrifying look at a future that may not be too far away. Writer and director Spike Jonze’s “Her” takes a page from Kubrick’s book and explores a similar theme, but set on Earth rather than in space, in the not-too-distant future. It’s both a sweet love story and also an unsettling glimpse into what our society may soon become.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha bond at the beach
Warner Brothers

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely writer dealing with impending divorce from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). He becomes interested by a new program called OS1, which is advertised as being “not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness.” The system is geared toward his needs, and after he installs it, he becomes completely befuddled by Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who talks, acts, and thinks on her own; essentially, she’s a person without a body, a true consciousness. As Theodore and Samantha spend more and more time talking and getting to know each other, he begins to feel the burden of loneliness life somewhat, and soon they fall in love. Their relationship seems strange to both of them at first, but Theodore comes to realize that other people are also forming deep bonds with their OS; it isn’t considered strange, just a part of their evolving society. But the complications inevitably increase over time—Theodore and Samantha can’t touch each other, for one thing, and Samantha’s continuing evolution and thirst for knowledge and understanding threatens to drive them apart.

A lot of credit for this film’s success has to be given to Johansson. Of course Jonze’s screenplay and direction make the film as moving as it is, but without a convincing voice actress to play Samantha, the relationship between her and Theodore wouldn’t have been believable. Johansson doesn’t have in her role the luxury of using gestures and facial expressions to convey her feelings; rather, she does it using her voice alone, and does it beautifully, to where it isn’t difficult to imagine why Theodore is so attracted to her.

Phoenix, who is nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in this film, is also fantastic, although that isn’t much surprise; Phoenix has always been adept at completely burying himself in any role he takes on. Here, he is a relatively shy, lonely man who obviously has trouble expressing his own emotion or committing to a relationship. He works for a letter-writing company and has no problem expressing the feelings of complete strangers in lush letters, but when it comes to his own life, he is bumbling and clueless. The supporting cast is also solid, particularly the other ladies in Theodore’s life: there’s Mara, his suffering ex-wife who he still has some feelings for, and Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s neighbor, longtime friend, and confidante. Olivia Wilde and Chris Pratt also appear in small roles, and pay close attention to some of the other voices you hear—Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader also turn up briefly.

But what is mainly so fascinating and unsettling about “Her” is the way it depicts a future that isn’t very far from our reach. We already have programs like Siri that we can talk to and interact with; we are just a step away from having our own Samantha. As the outcome of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship proves, that probably isn’t a good thing, as wonderful to some as it may sound. Humans require other humans to relate to, and long-term it isn’t a healthy situation for either party. The strange thing is, that most of the people Theodore talks to are accepting of the fact that he is dating an OS, from his coworker to Amy. Knowing how judgmental our society currently is, it’s unlikely that most peoples’ reactions would be so favorable to this situation, but for the most part it works in the movie. Catherine is the only one who completely flips when she discovers who the new woman in Theodore’s life really is; to her, it is further justification of Theodore’s inability to confront his real feelings.

“Her” is the best love story in recent years, but it is so much more than that when you look beyond the surface. It is, rather, a cautionary tale, a bit in the vein of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, preparing the viewer for technology is that likely inevitable as humanity continues to evolve—even though in “Her”, it’s the program that’s evolving, as humanity hangs back, struggling with their emotions without really understanding them.

Runtime: 126 minutes. Rated R for language, sexual content, and brief graphic nudity.

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