I recently did my Top 10 list for 2013, and on it I placed HER squarely at number 5. I probably did my list too early, because seeing HER again made me immediately reassess its position on the list. I was overwhelmed by the power and beauty of it. Spike Jonze's romance between a man and his home computer operating system could have easily been a joke; this generation's ELECTRIC DREAMS, if you will, but Jonze takes this story and explores what it truly means to love and be loved, and how to navigate this world where relationships mean something entirely different then they did even fifteen years ago.
HER takes place in the very near future, a future where the majority of our lives are spent online, and where belts for men's pants are a thing of the past, apparently (one of the aspects of HER I love most is the way people dress in the future; it's almost as if Spike Jonze had a sneak peek into the fashion catalogs of 2018). But the science fiction aspects of HER are merely set dressing. Jonze has something more universal in mind. Whether HER is a personal statement about Spike Jonze and his relationship and life experiences, or where we're headed as a people in the not-distant-at-all future... all of that is irrelevant. HER is about investing your life into someone, heart and soul, about acceptance, about our unwillingness to change ourselves, and our ability to change when we must... and even then, that may not be enough. It's only incidental that Theodore Twombly's (Joaquin Phoenix) great love is just a voice coming from his phone - how many lasting relationships have we all formed in recent years that had no physical counterpart?
Theodore is recovering from the break-up of his wife and best friend (Rooney Mara). He tries dating other women, without success. He is lonely beyond compare, even beyond a place where friends like Amy (Amy Adams) can reach. When he installs a new OS, an OS that is sentient and intelligent, he bonds with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) right away. Soon, it becomes more than bonding - it seems to be real love. But Samantha is learning more every day, going beyond the boundaries of her programming, and as with every relationship, her new experiences begin to challenge Theodore.
A lesser filmmaker would approach this story in the usual cliched manner. There are very few films about artificial intelligence that don't take the easier, more explored route, based in lack of understanding and empathy. But Samantha isn't simply a voice; she experiences joy, love, anger, sadness, fear, passion, pleasure, pain, and finally, wisdom. She grows as any other human being does. It is a transcendent, spectacular performance, and just because Johansson has no physical presence onscreen it is no less powerful. She's matched, moment for moment, by Phoenix's strong, emotional work as a man picking up the pieces of his last relationship and discovering what real love means. Theodore, like so many of us, is looking for someone to complete him, but real relationships are about sharing growth, and Samantha begins to grow in ways that Theodore can't possibly perceive or handle. HER isn't an allegory - it explores real relationships, and pain is pain, regardless of how it happens or who causes it. Because Spike Jonze takes all of this seriously, and applies real passion and empathy to the characters and the plot, HER becomes something truly special, a film that pulses with the beat of the human heart. Amy Adams is also terrific (and having a hell of a year) as a close friend to Theodore who has also felt loss, and tries to put the pieces together the best way she can, on her terms. "We're only here briefly, and while I'm here, I want to allow myself joy."
These are universal themes. But they are also put into a context that likely won't resonate with everyone; I sense a generational shift in regards to HER, much like THE GRADUATE was for the Baby Boomers, touching on themes of alienation, love, and their place in the world that their parents didn't understand because they lacked the frame of reference. With HER, older audiences may not be able to get past that leap, while younger audiences, living so much of their lives online and in relationships with people they've never even met before, will understand completely what the film is trying to say. That's not to say HER will be completely alien to older people; if they can get past the primary conceit they may find much to appreciate and to relate.
These relationships are real. These feelings are real. And HER inspires those emotions in its audience. Spike Jonze has made a movie rich with empathy and heart, full of joy and heartache, passion, fury, and the pains of life. I am astonished at the skills on display here - Jonze not only directed but wrote the script, and the genuine power of the film makes it seem like he's lived through all of this himself in some fashion. The film has a wisdom of one who has truly loved and lost, and learned from the experience. With a fantastic score from The Arcade Fire, earnest, moving performances from all the actors, and elegantly directed by Spike Jonze, HER is a romance for the ages. Seeing this movie feels like a privilege. HER is so beautiful it hurts, so full of pain that the tears are like the shedding of skin, and so full of love that my heart swells just thinking about it.