What does it mean to be alive? What qualifies something as alive or not? Is it our physical form or is it simply the existence of our consciousness? No one has any concrete answers, but these are questions that permeate throughout all of humanity, intriguing many and all, Spike Jonze included, who uses his newest film, Her, to probe these very questions. A thought-provoking, stunning examination of loneliness, relationships, and connections, Spike Jonze has crafted something special with Her. It’s a film more focused on the human condition than anything else, on the universal emotions of love and loneliness, and how emotion transcends physical form. It’s a beautiful story and a clear standout in a marquee year for film.
Taking place in an unknown time in the near future, Her tells the story of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a recently divorced writer struggling with loneliness and depression. However, everything in his life starts to change when he purchases the latest Operating System that is home to the first sentient Artificial Intelligence, which in Theodore’s case is named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha and Theodore quickly bond, forming an instantaneously strong connection. From there the film spirals into the lofty themes of love and the merits of dating something without physical form. It all seems too ambitious and out-there to really work, but Spike Jonze brilliantly never loses focus on Theodore, always using the grand ideas as second fiddle to Theodore’s emotional journey. The film never gets bogged down in trying to answer these lofty philosophical questions, but instead approaches the relationship as if it were any other relationship and the film is better off for it.
However amazing Spike Jonze’s writing and direction are, this is a film that is truly dependent on its performances, on the believability of the connection between a man and a voice. Luckily, Joaquin Phoenix is more than up to the task, delivering what may be his finest work to date. Known more for his ferocity than anything, Phoenix takes a step back with this role, delivering a subtle, understated performance unlike anything he’s ever done before. He brings so many layers to the performance that he’s nearly unrecognizable, bringing an inherent likability to the role without ever losing the sadness and loneliness so central to the character. All the more impressive is the fact that the whole film is basically a one-man show, with the majority of the film’s runtime being Joaquin alone talking into a headset. The fact that he’s able to display such a wide variety of emotions by himself is incredibly impressive and, in a perfect world, it would be enough to earn him some Oscar love.
Just as impressive is Scarlett Johansson’s equally fantastic vocal performance as Samantha. With nothing more than her voice, Johansson delivers one of the most nuanced and striking performances of the year, imbuing Samantha with a boundless sense of imagination and innocence that is instantly charming and charismatic. With her voice alone, Johansson is able to make such a far-fetched concept entirely believable, simultaneously grounding her character in reality while also establishing her character as an attractive entity with authentic emotions and motivations.
There’s still so much worth mentioning about Her, be it Spike Jonze’s impeccable direction, the vivid visual design of the future, the warm and gorgeous cinematography, and the bright, inviting color pallet. All of these combine to form one of the most unique and optimistic visions of the future to ever grace the silver screen; a future where aliens and humanity-destroying viruses aren’t a problem, but instead a future filled with loneliness and real human emotions are. It’s a breath of fresh air to have a film where the future’s biggest problem is connecting with other people, especially after a couple years filled with countless post-apocalyptic, dystopian visions of the next couple hundred years.
Who knows if Her is going to be a real awards player come Oscar time, but if it were up to me, the film would be up for every major award. Jonze has truly created something special, a film that singlehandedly proves there’s still an infinite amount of possibilities to explore when it comes to love and human connections. In a time where many think they’ve felt everything they’re ever going to feel, Her swoops in to show them there’s always something new waiting on the horizon.
Review by James Hausman