Friday Film Focus: Her

She is his lifeline to the world he has loosened his hold on.

For Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), the melancholy, poetic voice of Her (Scarlett Johansson) is not only his hero, but the hero of this film. The movie is set in futuristic Los Angeles. Technology has been enhanced, and further intertwined into everyday life. In this existence we find Theodore in exquisite isolation.  He’s currently in the process of divorcing his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). He drifts about in a depressive haze, more proficient in understanding the feelings of others than his own. This is the case until he engages with a life-changing character: Samantha.

Theodore — once a writer for LA Weekly — spends his days composing other people’s love letters for an online site called With isolation as his default state, he spends every day alone in his thoughts. Insecure and closed off with his own romantic life, he lives vicariously through his work as an intermediary for others. He has one friend from college, Amy (played by the incredible Amy Adams), who lives nearby. Phoenix’s character talks to only one other work colleague (Chris Pratt) in the office. Having been recently divorced and overcome with loneliness, he grasps for attention through video games and futuristic phone sex. This is where Samantha comes in. Or, to be more precise, this is where he purchases her.

Indicated as being the first artificially intelligent operating system “with a consciousness,” Theodore soon starts running the system through his phone and home computer. Samantha is a name the operating system has chosen for herself. She organizes his life via the technical side of things (getting the news/weather, hashing through old emails, functioning as a personalized alarm clock). Unlike most jaded individuals, Samantha doesn’t complain about juggling her multiple roles as a pseudo-assistant, comfort device, companion, and ultimate savior.

They exchange pleasantries — playing the roles of strangers destined to be lovers. Over time, Theodore starts wondering how he ever lived without her. For a man who sometimes resembles that of a machine, and an OS who very much exhibits the characteristics of a living woman, their love story is no less touching for its unusual structure.

Therein lays director Spike Jonze’s brilliance. The notion of a man falling in love with an operating system at once would have seemed almost farce or fantasy. In Her, it feels like a slight exaggeration of how we live now in the modern world — where virtual mixes with reality. We utilize online dating and the frequent changing a “status” at the click of a mouse as opposed to face-to-face interaction. Mr. Jonze and exceptional production designer KK Barrett have created a world only slightly embellished of our own. Los Angeles — still vast in its size — is now as vertical as Manhattan, and everyone chooses to travel by train instead of car.

Part of the pleasure of this film is its hushed beauty using diffused lighting and a stunning sherbet-like color palette filled with mellow yellows and coral pinks. Everyone around Theodore is more plugged into their devices than to other people, and the audience is able to see early on how isolated he is even in a crowd. Simply put, Samantha saves him.

He carries her (the device) around in his shirt pocket so she can observe the wide world. They go on adventurous dates, and Theodore soon starts introducing her to people as his girlfriend. She’s the first voice he hears in the morning, and the last thing he hears at night. In time, she grows to understand his thoughts and deepest emotions. Samantha is nurturing and always capable of giving him undivided attention without any expectations in return. Despite the lack of a tangible physical presence, she tries to create a scenario in which intimacy is accomplished (with the help of a paid actor playing the role of Samantha).

Over time though, Samantha starts to mature and learn in warp speed. She discovers her own wants and begins developing her own self-hood. Samantha devours philosophy and literature at a rapid pace. Above all else, she yearns for human experiences. Her greatest crisis is coming to the realization that humanity may be only a stopping point on a greater and more satisfying journey through the cosmos.

Her is a remarkable, heartbreaking film. It embraces and acutely captures the intimacy of an intense love affair in which the rest of the world seems to dissolve or pass by at a far distance. As Theodore, Phoenix is tragic in his vulnerability and isolation. With his shoulders slumped and pants hitched up a little too high, he presents a harmless yet defeated and wounded soul. Phoenix has the ability to play these sorts of stunted soulful characters so beautifully. His performance in Her is much quieter than in that of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. His work here is more vulnerable yet surprisingly just as powerful. Johansson is superb as Samantha. Her breathy, sultry voice is expressive — filled with melody and warmth in which she’s able to give the invisible Samantha a vibrant, almost palpable form.

This is a film about a plausible love story between man and machine. Johansson and Phoenix are inspiring, and their chemistry is filled with authenticity and tenderness. The greater question of Spike Jonze’s Her isn’t whether machines can think and empathize, but whether or not human beings can still feel.

Image Source: Dominique Charriau/WireImage