Monday, November 18, 2013

Her: Your Normal Human/A.I. Love Story (Movie Review)

I had the great opportunity to see an early showing of Her, the new film written and directed by Spike Jonze staring Joaquin Phoenix , Scarlett Johansen, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Olivia Wilde. In short, the film follows Theodore (Joaquin) in a not-too-distant future Los Angeles where one can buy a new operation system which is the first to have an artificial intelligence. The goal of the software is to help organize one's life. Theodore, who has recently been divorced, purchases this software with the hopes that he life, which is in disarray, will become orderly. His software, which is self-named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett), is a joyful, funny, and helpful companion that not only helps Theodore with organization but provides friendship, self-esteem, and even love.

Theodore and Samantha (the phone in his pocket) at a
crowed SoCal beach.
The genius of the film is its ambiguity. There are several moments, throughout the film where I had an internal struggle because I was not always sure how I was suppose to respond to a scene. For example, there were several scenes where a number of people in the audience would laugh out loud and while I understood why they laughed because I could see the comedy in the scene, I simultaneously was not sure if it was actually funny or rather dark and sad. A lot of scenes, for me, blurred the line between (1) awkward/funny and (2) sad/dark. I think an individual's response to a scene is dictated by how one understands society today. I think one could easily find several scenes laugh-out-loud funny but only if you think the idea of a man falling in love with an A.I. program to be totally far-fetched and unbelievable. Yet, if you think that this idea is not actually far-fetched and see strong parallels between this story and how our society today interacts with technology (instead of humans) then you may find those same scenes to be sad and dark because they actually resemble the present. This ambiguity resulted in me contemplating the film days after I saw it and has become a highlight of the film for me.

This ambiguity can also be applied to the film's genre. Is this a sci-fi film, a romance, a tragedy, a comedy, a commentary on technology, on commentary on relationships? There is obviously no definite answer to this genre question (even though Netflix in a year or so will probably put it in the Sci-fi category) but that I walked away asking this question is evident of it success to be a story that stirs multiple emotions and ideas in the individual viewer.

Robot & Frank: the antics
of a retired cat-bugler
and a geriatric robot.
As a fan of Issac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and science fiction in all its forms (from video games, to movies, TV, books, comics, etc.) I found Her a great depiction of the possibilities of A.I. One of the most enjoyable parts of watching the film was following Theodora and Samantha as they discover the potential and capabilities of the A.I. software. While at times, the way that Samantha acted as a self-aware A.I. was predictable, it was also captivating to see how this affected Theodore, which was less predictable. This idea of A.I./robots interacting with humans is not new, as evident by the recent 2012 film "Robot & Frank".  Robot & Frank, and other depictions of A.I./robots often create an unequal dichotomy where the human is clearly the superior, either because of physical quality, mental quality (i.e. the ability to lie), relationship quality, or some ethereal quality (i.e. soul, spirit, etc). Her surprised me by not creating this dichotomy. Samantha has abilities that Theodore does not and the reverse is true. To see how the to grapple with coming to terms with who the other was and their capabilities and in turn how that affects their relationship was what made Samantha and Theodore's come alive.

Theodore's orange jacket
While I was captivated by the story, its characters, and the intellectual conversations it spurred after the credits rolled, the film was also visually captivating. The colors used through out are warm and bold, which is hinted at in the main poster (above). The most consistent explain of this is Theodore's orange jacket that pops out of the frame to grab the viewer's attention throughout the film. This is not only exhibited in the main character's clothing but also throughout the world that Jonze made, either within Theodore's office or in the futuristic Los Angeles (which was actually shot in Singapore). Also, the music in the film was enjoyable and felt appropriate for a slightly futuristic story. The soundtrack is done by Arcade Fire and has a lot of similarities to their new record, Reflektor. The score ebbs and flows well with the movie and its pace.

A large part of the film's success at captivating the audience is in the acting of Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson. I am not surprised that I enjoyed their acting but it wasn't until a couple days after I saw this movie that I realized that 60%+ of the movie is either a close up of Theodore's face while he talks to Samantha or watching Theodore walk around Los Angeles while talking to Samantha. Without the great acting by Joaquin or the great acting from Scarlett and the range of emotions that she is able to convey through her voice, this film would not be successful as I believe it is.

Samantha can see the world through this iPhone-looking
device that Theodore carries in his front pocket. 
While I believe that this film achieves a lot and it probably going to be one of my top 10 films for 2013, it does have it's faults. With a running time of 120 minutes, it had a good pace up until the last 20-30 min. My wife, who saw this film with me, was disinterested with the last section because it noticeably slowed down in its pace and for some plot reasons. While I was not disinterested with the last section, its slower pace was noticeable and distracting. In addition to that, the ending, while I think was good and adequate for the story, was not as creative as the rest of the film. I was pleasantly surprised with how the film approached A.I. and its interaction with humanity, I was not surprised though with the ending. In the larger picture, this did not take away much from my experience of watching the film.

Her tells a funny, awkward, sad, and hopeful love story which expands one's definition and understanding of love and relationships. While it is set in the future, it does not take one long to see the present, which will probably make you pause the next time you pick up your iPhone or use Siri.

I give this movie an 8.8 out of 10


  1. Great article, Troy. When did you get to see this?

  2. I saw this at the AFI Fest last week. It was great because Spike Jonze did a 30 min. Q&A afterwards and it was in the Egyptian Theater.