Rarely do romances come as strange, sad and beautiful as Her, the latest cinematic rabbit hole from the brilliant Spike Jonze. Jonze never takes the straight road when he makes a movie, and in the case of Being John Malkovich, created one of the most unique movies of the last twenty years. Her easily matches it, though it aims for melancholy sweetness rather than disturbing existentialism. In the process it creates a stand-out science fiction story in a year already littered with them. Most of 2013’s crop have gone big, however (witness Gravity, Oblivion and Elysium among others); this one takes the opposite route to remarkable effect.
He has some seriously awesome help. Like Andy Serkis’s various creations, Scarlett Johansson pushes the boundaries of how we define a great performance here. She plays Samantha, the sentient OS marketed in the Los Angeles of the not-to-distant future. We never see her; we only hear her voice as her lonely, schlubby owner Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) first uploads her into his computer, then slowly falls in love with her. It’s hardly surprising; Theodore is involved in an emotionally messy divorce with his childhood sweetheart and his isolation radiates out from him in waves. He’s awkward and shy, and certainly isn’t ready to start dating again. Like all of this new “OS 1” line, Samantha is designed to conform to his personality type and to grow with him. She’s kind and sympathetic, even though she doesn’t agree with him about everything. Suddenly, he has a constant companion willing to listen, make helpful suggestions and even kick him in the ass if he needs it. What happens next is only natural.
Moreover, it’s just a single step or two away for life as we know it already. Online relationships flourish across the world, and until we meet in real life, we can never be sure exactly who that person on the other side of the computer is. Who’s to say we won’t be able to invent our own virtual lovers in a few years? Her dedicates itself to a thoughtful and thorough exploration of that concept. You can smell the cheap jokes and easy plot complications lurking just out of sight: an artificial mind jealous of a real-life rival, a computer-led uprising masked as viable connections, all the hoary clichés from fifty years of AI science fiction. Jonze looks them straight in the eye and then firmly turns them away, going for the interesting issues instead of the tired plot twists.
There’s definitely interesting issues to be had, for while Samantha is warm and friendly, she is most definitely not human. Her relationship isn’t perfect with her human mate, since she’s growing and changing along with him. She lacks a physical body, but her mental and emotional boundaries are truly limitless, and not even she may know where they lead. Theodore comes along for the ride, both as an audience surrogate and a confused, sensitive man trying to decide if this is all too weird for words.
You could read it as a metaphor for homosexual relationships or any other “taboo” love, but it reality, it stands on its own. Perhaps more importantly, we find ourselves caring very deeply about the two of them and where their romance might be headed. Jonze has answers for us, and just like real life they’re both sadder and more wondrous than we might anticipate. Phoenix underplays his character beautifully, aided by a strong supporting turn from Amy Adams as his pal down the hall and Johansson, whose career-best performance comes devoid of any facial features. Even voice-over actors for animated films have an onscreen character to help. Johansson doesn’t even have that, and yet she knocks it out of the park. She’ll be ignored, of course, but like Serkis, her work her is remarkable.
To that, Jonze add a subtle but effective visual look, conveying a future Los Angeles that feels plausibly futuristic without going overboard on the bells and whistles. When coupled with the amazing script, it becomes a nearly perfect package to give the Oscar race a jolt: turning what could have been a cheap knock-off into a haunting romance, an elegant character study and a nifty meditation on our increasing interdependence with machines. This may very well be where our world is headed, and the film’s exploration of these issues fits in exceedingly well with the best that science fiction has to offer. Does Samantha have a soul? Is her connection to Theodore wrong, or merely different? Abstract questions today might very well be tomorrow’s op-ed headlines, and Her feels deliciously ahead of the curve on that front. We don’t live in an era that appreciates original filmmaking like this. Franchises and adaptations are the norm, and while they produce their share of great movies, we’ve lost the spark of originality that traditionally defines the best of science fiction. Her isn’t about to let that spark die without a fight… and the ammunition in its corner is potent indeed.