Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #1: Her

Can a computer have a soul? Can a movie? Her, Spike Jonze's breathtaking, devastating film about a lonely man and his sentient operating system, spends a good deal of time pondering the first question and, in the process, answers the second. But let's not bury the lede here: This is a movie about a man who falls in love with a machine. No matter the miracles science has provided in the new millennium, this is a tough sell. Yet the unique genius of Her—beyond its remarkable and vast imagination—is that it acknowledges the absurdity of its premise while simultaneously committing to it with the utmost sincerity. The result is a film that's often uproariously funny, playfully mocking its gorgeous self-made universe with wit and good humor. But Her also, through a combination of sublime technique and heartfelt storytelling (Jonze also wrote the script), offers acute insight into the dynamics of modern relationships: what it means to be alone, to be loved, to be depressed, to be happy. It's a movie about machines that affirms our very humanity. And it makes resoundingly clear that even if computers may not have souls, some movies surely do.

Her begins on a black screen—a motif it will forcefully revisit later—as we listen to Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) vocalizing an apparent love letter, addressed "to my Chris". He speaks in sweet, caressing phrases, the gentleness of which seems so earnest that it takes a moment to register when he refers to himself as a woman. Theodore, it turns out, is not some love-struck fool but a cubicle worker at His job, which he performs with admirable dedication and minimal fuss, is to process others' feelings and turn them into romantic poetry. But Theodore has feelings of his own.

Primarily, he is experiencing a vague but palpable sense of isolation. This stems partly from Her's setting, a faintly futuristic Los Angeles in which technology has advanced to the point of diminishing human interaction. Theodore is surrounded by people, but like those around him, he engages chiefly with a staid artificial intelligence that regularly notifies him of new emails and other banal happenings. (In the film's first big laugh, the voice informs Theodore of leaked nude photos of a celebrity, which he opts to furtively examine while on a jam-packed subway.) But he is also reeling from the ongoing divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara, bringing profound pathos to a small but crucial part), whom we glimpse briefly in choppy flashbacks and whose absence has left a deep void in Theodore's life. He is not entirely antisocial—he gabs occasionally with Amy (Amy Adams, tender and warm), a collegiate friend who lives in his building—but for the most part he seems fitful, shuffling along his daily routine without any greater sense of purpose. The divorce has also paralyzed his dating life, leading him to seek sexual gratification only through anonymous phone calls that are brief and unsatisfying. (Well, maybe for him. The rest of us can revel in the movie's single funniest moment, when a seemingly typical phone-sex session takes a sharply fetishistic turn.) And so, when he sees an advertisement for "OS1", an operating system that evolves to meet your every need, he resignedly plunks down some cash and boots up his laptop.

Out pops the disembodied voice of Samantha, a formless program who speaks in the perky chirp of Scarlett Johansson and whose arrival shifts Her into high gear. She is as functional as promised, processing information at warp speed and adapting effortlessly to Theodore's particular lifestyle and habits—in organizing his calendar and proofreading his letters, she quickly proves herself an able assistant. But she is also more than that. She is, most assuredly, not a person; Theodore cannot read her facial expressions, interpret her body language, see her, or touch her. But he can talk to her, and as he and Samantha chat, a bond rapidly develops. Surprisingly, the attachment appears to be mutual. He finds in her a confidant, someone sympathetic to his perpetual emotional malaise. And she finds in him an outlet for her ravenous curiosity, someone who can explain to her the peculiarities of a race she is programmed to help but cannot fully understand. And so, when Samantha gently urges Theodore to resume seeing women, she seems to be motivated both by genuine concern for his wellbeing and by her own selfish thirst for knowledge.

In particular, Samantha is both fascinated and confused by sex, along with corporeal existence in general. "What's it feel like to be in that room right now?" she inquires after one of Theodore's dates flames out. "What would you do if I were there with you?" It's a stark, unsolicited question—one with no bearing on her purported directive to assist her charge—and Theodore's decision to respond marks a momentous turning point in their relationship, a seismic shift from servility to intimacy. Lest its significance be lost on us, Jonze shoots it not with figurative explosions but with a gentle fade to black, a monochrome that he then holds for over a minute. It's an incredibly audacious choice that demonstrates his abiding faith in his audience, and it confirms yet again that Her is no ordinary movie.

Yet it sort of is ordinary, or at least, it tracks the development of a seemingly ordinary relationship between two flawed, well-meaning individuals. As their strange union matures, Theodore and Samantha must navigate decidedly uncertain terrain, and they do so with an all-too familiar mixture of enthusiasm and awkwardness. (Theodore's first words to Samantha the night after their game-changing encounter, in a pathetic attempt to deflect the issue: "Hi. Any emails?") They must also operate within Jonze's personal vision of the future, one that is both casually enchanting and subtly unsettling. Certainly there are luxuries to enjoy, and the characters' nonchalant reliance on new-age wizardry feels like a natural outgrowth of our current innovation boom. (The coolest stuff? Videogames. Between Theodore's odd first-person adventure yarn, which features a delightfully profane Pillsbury-style sidekick, and Amy's hilarious Sims-style RPG, which warns moms everywhere of the perils of over-sugaring children, Jonze establishes that he could easily migrate to the gaming industry if he ever tires of film.) Yet as beautiful and user-friendly as the Los Angeles of Her may appear, it also feels lonely and oppressive, and listening to the hushed tones of Arcade Fire's whispered piano-based score, you can't help but sense that technological progress may come at the cost of social attrition.

But can't science and humanity complement one another? Certainly Theodore and Samantha would like to think so, and despite the obvious obstacles impeding their intimacy—don't forget, she's a computer—their connection feels real and powerful, transcending the limitations of the body and tapping into something more elemental. This may raise eyebrows, not just in the audience but also within Theodore's social circle, yet one of the shrewder components of Her is that not everyone who learns of his coupling with Samantha believes it to be doomed. For example, one of his coworkers (Chris Pratt, very natural) accepts Samantha's identity without batting an eyelash, while Amy is more intrigued than alarmed. But there are skeptics as well, and the most blunt and acidic response comes from Catherine, who reacts to the news that her ex-husband has found solace in a binary being with outrage and incredulity. It's a reaction that may be borne out of jealousy and confusion as much as insight, but it's indicative of the difficulties that Theodore and Samantha face, and as they attempt to push the confines of their revolutionary relationship, they also brush up against its limitations. The absence of physicality grows more significant—a desperate attempt to work around that problem proves disastrous—but even more crippling is Samantha's insatiable need to evolve. She was once envious of humanity, but as her appetite grows, she soon yearns to move beyond it, and to commune with other intelligences who are, in their own programmatic way, superhuman.

But Theodore loves her anyway. And it is Her's poignant articulation of the indescribable sensation of love—the desire, the frustration, the madness—that elevates it from a clever concept to something truly historic. It's a film that's defiantly specific in depicting its own bizarre and extraordinary romance, but it is also deeply empathetic to the broader concept of human connection. This is thanks in part to its enormously gifted actors. Phoenix, who sports a papery mustache and spends much of the film clad in ludicrously high-waisted pants, shreds all vestiges of vanity and portrays Theodore as a nervous bundle of emotions; he is by turns sad, elated, angry, and even a little mean, but he always feels like a real person. So too, remarkably enough, does Samantha, and as Johansson's clear, convivial voice starts to crack and gives way to something richer and sadder, she somehow creates a fully realized character. Both performances are endemic of Jonze's overall spirit of nobility and generosity, and of how, with wry humor and heartfelt sincerity, he turns a ridiculous premise into something strange and wonderful.

Late in Her, Amy confides to Theodore, "We're only here briefly, and while I'm here, I want to allow myself joy." It's a simple, honest declaration whose purity feels revelatory, especially in a film that so expertly expresses how messy and painful human existence can be. And Her, for all its fascinating inquiries into computers' depths, is entirely about being human. It acknowledges our flaws, even as it's flawless, and it recognizes that despite our defects, we can do great things: build self-aware machines, compose beautiful music, make people laugh, find true love. Sometimes, we can even make movies like this one. And then, in watching them, we can allow ourselves joy.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #2: The Spectacular Now
The Best Movies of 2013, #3: Gravity
The Best Movies of 2013, #4: Blue Is the Warmest Color
The Best Movies of 2013, #5: Captain Phillips
The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013


Unknown said...

beautiful review, jerbear! and what an awesome choice for #1. i saw this movie because you told me to and have watched it at least 5 times since. ;)

my only qualm with "her" was the choice to cast scarlett as samantha. she did an amazing job with the part, but we all know what she looks like so well, it was hard to imagine she wasn't a real, breathing human on the other end of the "line" (or computer, or whatever).

Jeremy said...

It's an interesting point, and it may have motivated the initial casting of Samantha Morton as Samantha. (Morton vocalized Samantha's lines during actual production, but Jonze replaced her with Johansson during post and had the latter re-loop her lines.) Morton is a great actress, but her appearance is hardly recognizable to most American viewers, much less her voice, so any danger of distraction wouldn't have been present. That said, after having seen the finished product, I can't imagine anyone besides Johansson in the part.