“Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel, and from here on out I’m not going to feel anything new, just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”
That’s a line that Joaquin Phoenix‘s Theodore says in the first act of Spike Jonze’s Her, and after all the beauty of the rest of the film, all the raw emotions that are projected onto the screen, that’s the one that stuck with me as I left the theater. It’s such a potent line, simultaneously summing up the journey of the entire movie and the journey and fears that all humans are afflicted with in a mere 30 words. It also mirrors my feelings about being done with this movie and not knowing if I’ll ever feel any emotions from future films other than lesser versions of what I’ve already felt watching Her.
Theodore Twombly spends his days writing letters for other people, people who can’t find ways to put their own emotions onto the page and thus need him to do it for them. He spends his nights alone, wishing that he had someone to love with that same beauty. In an effort to quell his loneliness, he orders an artificially intelligent operating system who is self-named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Samantha adapts to her surroundings and adapts to Theodore, growing and evolving along with him until they become so intertwined and connected that a romantic relationship develops.
Now even I, a sci-fi lover and a sucker for an intriguing premise, was a bit hesitant about this one. A guy falling in love with his computer is weird, and there’s no denying that. But it turns out that Samantha is so much more than a computer, and it’s because of that subversion of expectation that the film is able to thrive on a level where a regular romance would not. Jonze never tries to pretend that romantic feelings between a computer and a human are not weird, and the characters don’t either. Sure, it’s more accepted in this not-so-distant future than it would be in modern society, but everyone can relate to having irrational feelings for someone that society says they should not.
Another reason why it’s so touching and yet so powerful is that we’ve seen this story before. We’ve seen humans have relationships with computers countless times. Usually though, those relationships are heavier on intimidation and fear and a lot lighter on love. The only terror to be found in Her is the terror of realizing you’ve probably never before felt anything as real and as raw as what Jonze brings to the screen. Still, as with those great films of the same ilk, there’s an unnerving sense about the relationship, but rather than the threat physical danger being the source of tension, it’s the threat of emotional pain, which is just as powerful.
Still, the relationship between the two characters would have completely failed if it weren’t for the performances by the two leads. Despite all the weirder aspects of his recent years, there’s no denying that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the most talented actors working today. He’s in his top form here, and it’s all the more impressive when you remember that he’s spending much of the movie talking to himself. I say remember on purpose there, because the majority of the time I forgot that he was in a room alone talking to an earpiece. It just feels that real. And for every bit of that feeling that Phoenix should be credited with, give twice the credit to Johansson. She gives one of the most remarkable voice acting performances I’ve ever heard. I firmly believe she’s worthy of a best actress nomination for this one. I know it can’t happen without her appearing on screen, but the emotions she was able to convey purely through her voice absolutely blew me away. She’s able to hit more layers through her voice than I previously knew people had. If I ever do get an AI-fueled operating system, I demand that it has her voice.
Jonze’s use of Johansson furthers along his poignant commentary on the physical nature of relationships. To tell a story about loving someone for who they are underneath in a world that’s increasingly focused on exterior beauty, he takes one of the most beautiful actresses alive and never shows her on-screen. Even the fleeting imaginary version that Theodore creates isn’t played by Johansson. And it works to perfection, providing a great reminder and image of why this relationship is so touching. As weird as it may be at times, most modern relationships could learn a thing or two from Theodore and Samantha.
Every single shot is a feast for the eyes. If that’s what LA looks like in the future, then there’s nowhere else I want to live. From the subway to the tops of buildings, every single visual is crafted to perfection and designed down to the most meticulous detail. As remarkable as it is when a film is set hundreds of years into the future and a world is created for that, it’s just as difficult to set something in the near future. The world has to be something that we could realistically see ourselves reaching. From the costume design to the technology, Her hits that mark better than anything else in memory.
With all the touching moments of the story, it’s easy to forget how hilarious Her is as well. I rarely find myself laughing out loud at a movie, but in this there were lines I missed from laughing so hard. Between the humorous moments and the happiness that the characters are able to find, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. And really, as great as stories with a lot of weight are, movies also need to entertain, and for a movie about trying to find happiness, it’s wonderful that the happiness of the characters can bring such pure happiness to the audience as well.
Samantha later counters Theodore’s powerful line by discussing her own feelings. “Are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming?” She’s referencing her own, artificially created feelings, but in reality she’s also talking about the feelings Jonze programmed into us by creating one of the most beautiful films in a long, long time.