If you’re like me, you enjoy the show Futurama, and were overjoyed to hear of the reboot of the series. There’s an episode early in the first season of the reboot called “Proposition Infinity” where Bender campaigns for “robosexual marriage” (between robots and humans). The episode actually brings up a lot of great discussion about what love really is, and in 2010 when the episode debuted, it was a great satire of the raging gay marriage debate (still raging today, for many states). I bring this up because “Her” (2013, Spike Jonze) is a refreshing look at how people develop relationships, and what the definition of a “real” relationship is.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) writes love letters for a living. It’s his job to come up with all the mushy notes that people write to their significant others/family members/spouses so that people don’t have to do all the romantic legwork themselves. Ironically, Theodore finds himself in the final stages of a divorce, and spends most of his free time playing video games or occasionally going out with a handful of friends. When Theodore sees an ad for OS1, the OS that is “not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness,” he decides to buy one. The resulting personality is Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the female consciousness that Theodore desperately needs in his life. Their relationship is more professional at first. Samantha is more of an AI personal assistant than a romantic partner, but quickly self-improves her programming to be there for emotional support and more. I won’t spoil where this is going. Just go see the film.
It’s hard for one actor to carry a film like this by themselves, for the most part, and Joaquin Phoenix does a phenomenal job in this role. His loneliness is palpable, and his joy is authentic as he begins to fall in love with Samantha. Different from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” headed by a lone Sandra Bullock, I’m not sure another actor could have done as well as Phoenix in that role, and I think any actress could have done what Bullock did in “Gravity” (Note: I thought she was excellent in the role). Additionally, Johansson’s voice talent as Samantha is nothing short of stellar. Her laugh is like music, and she really helps to bring to life the real feelings that the OS is processing.
It’s interesting that, in a live-action film, there’s so much voice work for characters who are never seen onscreen, even in a digital form. Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and even Spike Jonze himself voice some of the online personalities of “Her.” Each of these characters, despite their brief time as part of the plot, helps convey just how connected Theodore is to technology, and in doing so, shows him something about himself by the end of the film.
Speaking of lessons learned and how the film conveys them, William Butler and Owen Pallet rightly deserve the Academy Award nomination for best original score. Loads of mellow piano music sprinkled through the film perfect the melancholy tone of the movie, yet provide uplift in all the right places. Combined with the futuristic and minimalist production design, there’s lots of “space” in the film to help echo Theodore’s sense of loneliness as a character going through a divorce and conflicting feelings of falling in love with a computer program.
“Her” is a film that boldly steps in a new direction, exploring the very nature of human relationships and dependence on technology. Its three Academy Award nominations are well deserved, and it’s got my personal vote for Best Picture on lock.