FlixChatter Review: Spike Jonze’s HER

Once in a while, a film you hadn’t heard much about suddenly sneaked in and took your breath away. In 2013, that film for me was HER.

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In its simplistic terms, Spike Jonze‘s sci-fi drama is about a guy who falls in love with an Operating System. Yes, that alone is downright bizarre, which at first glance reminds me of Al Pacino’s S1m0ne from 2002 but it actually couldn’t be more different from each other. No, there’s so much more to HER than meets the eye… and I have to admit, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I was about to witness.

The story takes place in Los Angeles some time in the future (the year is not specified), but it’s a futuristic time where we can still very much identify with. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) makes a living as a writer who writes love letters for people who can’t quite express their feelings. That alone is an interesting occupation as Theodore is very good at what he does, yet he lives a lonely existence, you could even say he’s crestfallen. Having just separated from his wife, he internalizes everything and barely has any social life. One day, he purchased a talking operating system with artificial intelligence, designed to adapt and evolve like a human being. Little did he know that the OS in question, who names herself Samantha, would change his life in ways he’d never imagine.

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I have to admit that as I was watching the film, I too was quite taken by Samantha, voiced to perfection by Scarlett Johansson. As advertised, the OS’ ability to evolve psychologically and adapting to Theodore’s cerebral as well as emotional needs is astounding. She looks at the world through his eyes and learns at a rapid speed. It’s as if Samantha had known Theodore forever and that she’s the only *person* who could understand him. Samantha soon becomes a dominant part of Theodore’s life, seemingly rescuing him out of his gloom. She even sets him up on a blind date with a long time friend that his neighbor Amy has been trying to set him up with. It’s from a date snafu that Theodore and Samantha starts to talk about relationship and begins to really ask the question we as people take for granted.

This is the kind of thought-provoking science fiction story that I wish Hollywood would make more of. Sci-fi is not always about aliens or cool-looking futuristic equipments or cars or what have you, but a good sci-fi should actually makes us ponder about our own humanity. In this case, it explores how technology affects us humans in terms of our way of connecting with each other. In this day an age, with increasing number of people having far more connection with their digital devices than their living soul counterparts, the idea of dating an OS might not be so implausible after all. Fortunately, Jonze didn’t set up the whole idea as a mere gimmick. As Conor’s mentioned in his thought-provoking post, this is a great example of a true sci-fi , instead of those that are *dressed* as one.

As Theodore becomes more smitten with Samantha and vice versa, the only thing missing was the physical connection… and that is perhaps one of the most bizarre yet essential exploration of the film. I’m not going to spoil the details for you but the keyword here is surrogate. If you think the idea is downright outlandish, well wait until you see it on film. I have to admit I was squirming in my seat watching the scene unfold, but I think the scene is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. Jonze tackled the issue of sexuality in the digital age and its peculiarity in a matter-of-fact way which makes you squirm and laugh at the same time. Yet it’s also one of the most emotionally absorbing film I’ve seen in a long time.

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When I saw the film, the theater was quite empty with barely twenty people in it. So it was almost having the whole place to myself which is a good thing as I was almost sobbing a few times. The heartbreak that Theodore is experiencing isn’t any less miserable because Samantha wasn’t human. In fact, there’s a scene towards the end that was utterly heart-wrenching, I’d just imagine how I would feel when I fear losing the one person I love most as that’s what Theodore must be feeling.

Now, though the film doesn’t explore the spiritual aspect of the premise, it certainly makes me think about it quite a bit as I’m watching it and long afterwards. I remember watching Blade Runner a while back, which was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel more aptly-titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It prompted me to write this post about how droids want to be human but some humans would rather keep their feelings out of the way in their relationships. Samantha could’ve been the best girlfriend Theodore could ever have, he even comes to accepts the lack of a physical form, but how does he reconcile fact that she is without soul? It seems that Samantha experiences pain as much as Theodore does when their relationship flounder. But is it real? How could he ever know? The revelation towards the end that Theodore learns from Samantha throws him off balance… I mean, it was as much a shock to me the viewer, as I’ve come to identify and empathize with him.

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The key strength of the film is the stellar performances. Joaquin Phoenix is nothing short of astounding in his soulful performance as Theodore. As the camera follows his physiognomy in various close-ups, many times he’s not saying anything at all for a long period of time, but his face and eyes convey so much. His character goes through an emotional roller coaster here and Phoenix was more than up for the task. Scarlett Johansson delivers one of the best voice performances I’ve ever listened to. Samantha is described as super intelligent and extremely confident, as an OS wouldn’t have any of the insecurities and fear that a real woman would have. Johansson seems the natural choice for the role which is odd considering she was brought in at the last minute after Samantha Morton did the original voice work. Whatever it was that made Jonze change her mind about Morton, the switch worked amazingly well as I can’t imagine anyone else in the role besides Johansson. She’s playful, charming, sexy, but also emotionally convincing when the role requires. I really think that voice work should be recognized come award season, as I’ve mentioned in this post. In terms of supporting cast, Amy Adams is terrific as Theodore’s neighbor. It proves how versatile she is considering how far apart this role is from the one in American Hustle, definitely a lot more clothes on and a lot less make-up. Remarkably, her small here might even be more profound than her performance as Lois Lane in Man of Steel. Olivia Wilde and Rooney Mara both have bit parts as Theodore’s date and ex-wife, respectively. They’re both ok, but there’s nothing to write home about. Oh, I quite like Chris Pratt as Theodore’s colleague as well. At first I thought he was an odd casting choice but it worked somehow.

The look and sound complements the mood of the film perfectly, down to the rather melancholic music. Some of my faves are Arcade Fire’s Supersymmetry and The Moon Song. The latter is co-written by by Jonze and performed by both Johansson and Phoenix. I also love the futuristic setting that Jonze created, it feels familiar yet different. The luminous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema creates a rather sterile-looking L.A. that feels strangely retro even though it’s set in the future. Even the clothes that Theodore wears have a retro look to them with the high-waisted slacks.

Final Thoughts: This has become one of my favorite films of 2013, and perhaps of all time. There are so many rich nuances in this film that I could mull over and contemplate with, it’s definitely one of those films that I’d like to watch more than once just to absorb it all again. Thanks to a meticulously sharp script by Jonze, his intimate directing style and terrific performances, her is a fascinating journey that’s as intriguing as it is heartfelt.

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4.5 out of 5 reels

Thoughts on this film? I’d love to hear what you think!

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82 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Spike Jonze’s HER

  1. Ruth, Ruth Ruth, I could not agree with you any more. I saw this on December 26th and before that I was sure that nothing would dethrone in my mind the sublime experience of seeing 12 Years a Slave. A while they are EXTREMELY different movies, this one holds a special place in my heart at top of the past year. It is a beautiful testament to the nature of love.

    • Iba, Iba, Iba! :D Glad you’re with me on this one! I think Gravity still stand as my #1 but this one is pretty darn close. 12 Years a Slave is a good one too but like you said, there’s something about ‘Her’ that makes me love it so much.

  2. Good review Ruth. One of my favorite movies of the past year for the main reason in which it approaches it’s odd, yet unique love story as if it were any other one we’d be seeing on the big-screen. The only difference here is that it’s between a man and his operating-system. Very strange, but somehow, it ends up being the most beautiful romance I’ve seen in quite some time.

    • Thanks Dan! It’s interesting how an off-the-wall romance ends up being more intriguing and beautiful than between two humans. I can’t wait to rewatch this one.

  3. I only skimmed to your review here, I’m thinking of going to see it in theater this weekend but I hate seeing this kind of movie at the cinemas because there’s always some people who can’t seem to stop yapping during the movie. I might just wait till it hits BD so I can enjoy it on my mini theater instead.

    • Hi Ted, I forgot if I asked you to the screening or not as I wasn’t sure this is something you’d be interested in. You’d have loved it as the theater was almost empty. It looks beautiful on the big screen though.

      • No you didn’t ask me but I didn’t know there’s a screening so that’s cool. :) I tend to not get too excited for Spike Jonze’s film but I have seen all of his work and they’re pretty great so I was looking forward to seeing this film since I saw trailer months ago. I might go see it sometime next week since it’s playing at Southdale.

        • Somehow I thought since it’s a slower film you wouldn’t be interested. But yeah, go see it if it opens in Southdale, Ted, curious to hear what you think.

  4. Not sure if it posted or you have to confirm comments, but… Go ahead and give it a five. You’ve called it one of your favorites of all-time and that doesn’t earn a perfect score? I didn’t love it right away…it grew on me the more I thought about it now its my third favorite film of 2013. Glad you really enjoyed it as well. If it was any other Phoenix would be in the Best Actor conversation.

    • Ahah y’know, I considered giving a five but there were a couple of things that made me think it’s not a flawless film. It’s currently in my 2nd fave film in my yet-to-be published top 10. I’d love to see Joaquin get another nom for this.

  5. That is the most glowing praise I have ever read on your site, Ruth.

    Now that it’s finally in theaters around us, I’ll be seeing it too. Hopefully I like it as much as you do.

    • Yeah I’m quite taken by this film, I guess it showed in my review :D Hope you get to see it this weekend, definitely worth a look on the big screen.

      • It sure did. I may be new to your site, but, like I said, I haven’t before seen you rave about something that way you did this one.

        I’m trying to convince my wife to let me out of the house tomorrow. If she will, I’ll make a point of catching this, Lone Survivor and/or August: Osage County (that the last is only in St. Louis Park is less than convenient, but whatever. I drive significant distance for a lot of movies).

        We’ll see if I can make it happen.

          • I did see them. Moviefone.com lied to me earlier in the week, when it said no other local theaters would be picking up August: Osage County this weekend. That one is playing basically everywhere, so I was able to go to my closest theater and see it, Her, Lone Survivor and Grudge Match.

            Thus far, Her is the only review I’ve finished, but I agree the movie is terrific. I don’t think it’s going to quite crack my Top Ten, but that is more a reflection of how many quality films 2013 has produced than it is on my opinion of Her. I think it’s Jonze’s best work yet.

            • Glad to hear James! Yeah I thought A:OC has opened in wider release, glad you saw that one as well.

              Curious to read your review of Her, bummer that it didn’t crack your Top 10 though, but then again I didn’t watch the same films as you did :)

              Still have to work on my review for Osage County but I better put up my Top 10 list before Oscar noms are announced!

    • Hi ckckred! I’m more inclined to check out his other works though I wasn’t as fond of Adaptation. It was just too weird despite some excellent performances.

    • I got more and more excited to see it weeks before the screening and it still managed to exceed my expectations! Hope it’s the same for you Steven.

  6. Aaah glad that you love it too! I just watched it a few days ago and I was spellbound by it from the first minute. It felt so real and honest and universal. Love the way this film portrays the setting too. Jonze is such a genius. Wholeheartedly agree with your review, Ruth. Nice one! :)

  7. So well-said, Ruth. Great review!

    I’m pumped to see you write the same glowing things about as I have. . . it indeed might be in my Top Ten favorites of all time. (An imaginary list, but one I might one day create. . .even as impossible as that might be). Her was simply phenomenal. Had I seen this in its limited release in December this would have changed around my Top 8 best films list of the year for sure, and maybe a couple of performance nominations. Glad you enjoyed it so much as well. :D

  8. Great work Ruth. With every passing day, I hear yet more and more praise for this film. It sounds great. As you know, I really like Phoenix and Spike Jonze is always interesting and original. Can’t wait!

    • Thanks Mark! It’s a long review, perhaps one of the longest I’ve ever written but I enjoyed so much writing it. I think this is right up your alley, esp if you like the filmmaker and cast.

  9. Oh! this sounds like my kind of movie!! I would love to see it!
    I have seen so many weird theme in Japanese movies and this one sounds like one of them and it makes me really curious….but I have to wait for the DVD here.

  10. It seems typical of Jonze to find an offbeat subject and inject such interest in it. I haven’t seen Mud yet but I’m reading so many good things about it. I even more fascinated to see it now after reading your thoughts on the film Ruth. And what a cast Jonze has assembled too! Looks like a potential film of the year for me too!

    • Hi Dan! Yeah, the offbeat subject matter somehow felt real and heartfelt. You mean Her right? I haven’t reviewed Mud yet though that’s one of my Top 10 pick.

      Hope you get to see it once it’s out in the UK, please stop by again and let me know what you think ok?

  11. I’ve just come back from watching this. Astounding!! Mesmerizing story!! Honestly speaking even I am smitten by Samantha. I’ve yet to see The Wolf Of Wall Street, but I doubt it will “Her” as my favorite film of 2013. I’ll be rooting for Joaquin Phoenix come awards season too!

    • Hi Asrap! Hey I’m glad you came here after you saw the film. Sounds like you had the same reaction as I did right after I saw this. The Wolf Of Wall Street is nowhere near as affecting to me as this one is, that one isn’t even gonna be on my top 20.

  12. Nice review, Ruth. I loved it too! Phoenix and Johansson were excellent, the production values were outstanding, and Jonze’s direction/screenplay were first-rate. Needless to say, it’s one of my favorites of 2013 as well. :)

    • Hi Josh! The production values are amazing indeed, made it look like it were more expensive than it was. I read on Forbes that it was under $25 mil. Glad to see it’s one of your faves from 2013 as well!

    • Hi Stellamarie, after reading the premise of both, yeah it does have some similarities. It’s always possible that a filmmaker was influenced by other works, but it’s still a pretty original story in regards to Joaquin’s character and his relationship with his OS Samantha.

    • It’s hard to be original anymore, so I’m sure Jonze have seen those films and came up with his version for “Her”. Look at the arguments on The Hunger Games, it’s not original but it’s different than other movies/books that came out before it.

  13. Great review, Ruth. I was looking forward to reading your thoughts on it after finally watching it last night. This was definitely an interesting movie, one that leaves me sorta speechless as it mulls over in my head after the fact. But yeah, I could definitely go for more sci-fi in this vein. :)

    • Hello Chris! I was left speechless too and my eyes were a bit swollen as that last part got me sobbing in the theater. Glad there were not many people around. I wish there were more sci-fis like this one.

    • Oh that’s right, he was in Wolf of Wall Street! Ha, I almost didn’t recognize him. Boy what a totally different film from the film he made, ahah.

  14. Ruth, this is a fantastic review. I have a feeling “Her” is going to be an all time favorite for me. It’s been a few years, but would you be up for linking each other on our blogrolls? I’m on Jarwatchesfilms2.com now!

    • Hi Joe, welcome to FC! Glad to hear this film meets your expectations. It was an absolute surprise to me as I hadn’t heard much about it before. Yeah Scarlett’s voice is quite mesmerizing, I totally understand how you feel :D

  15. Excellent review Ruth. I keep hearing phenomenal things about it, and the first thing I had heard was something you had written on Twitter, which got me interested. I hope to check this out soon!

    • Yay!! Glad to hear Andina!! I think the open-ended ending is suitable for this film… I really don’t know how else to end it any other way really. The story really stays with me, thanks to the fantastic performances by Joaquin and Scarlett.

  16. Pingback: » Movie Review – Her Fernby Films

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