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.

4.5 out of 5 reels


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

Guest Post: Elysium, Her & The Nature of Science Fiction

Special thanks to Conor Holt for this post. Stay tuned for my full review of Spike Jonze’s her coming this weekend!


Well, this is awkward. Science Fiction is my favorite film genre, but in 2013 one of my favorite films of the year and my least favorite film of the year…are both Science-Fiction. How could this happen?

Well, let’s go back to the Science Fiction Genre. The Science-Fiction genre is one of the more difficult genres to define, since it lacks the same visual iconography & story structure of more concrete genres, like the Western or the Gangster film (if I can remember my Science-Fiction film genre class from college correctly). The Western features cowboys, saloons, shootouts – constant, common visual cues that you’re watching a Western. A Sci-Fi film, however, could feature a time machine, or take place on a space ship, or feature a robot – any and all visuals are possible. A Gangster film almost always features the tragic rise and fall of a criminal in the urban jungle, while a Sci-Fi film could be about changing the past, or fighting aliens, or about a robot learning to be human. Science-Fiction is defined by its very diversity – any time period, any technology, any idea is possible. The only requirement is that the story address and think about that possibility.  The “what if?” of the story isn’t just a jumping off point, but the actual crux of the story.

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So, back to 2013, and two very different films. Just a few weeks ago, I saw Spike Jonze’s her, and loved it. Absolutely loved it. A tender, beautiful love story between a man and his Artificially Intelligent computer program, and the complications that arise from that. But this Summer, I saw Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium …and there’s really nothing good I can say about it. Matt Damon does his best, but even he can’t save a severely underwritten, poorly-told, simplistic, heavy-handed action film with some robots and space ships thrown in.

Both of these films are technically Science Fiction, yet I had vastly different reactions to them. Why? Well, of course, no one is going to like every film in a single genre. Hell, not every film in a genre is even going to be good – there are probably thousands of terrible direct-to-DVD sci-fi films cluttering Redboxes across the country right now. But I think an important distinction can be made between her and Elysium that address the nature of science-fiction.  “her” is about how a man could love an AI, how an AI could love a human, and the challenges they face as a couple that cannot touch each other (as well as looking at an overall world immersed in virtual activity and communication). Elysium features a floating space station for the rich, brain chips, and fancy new weapons, but it’s about a man trying to break in to a restricted area to get healed by a magical healing machine (the film never tries to explain how it works). While her makes the technology and the “science-fiction” part of the story, Elysium uses the science-fiction setting and props to dress up an action film, and a pretty silly action film at that.

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Maybe that’s it – the fact that Elysium pretends that it’s a Science-Fiction film, but is really an action film in Sci-Fi clothing is why I hated it so much, that and the fact that it’s a poorly written, hammy over-the-top failure (such a disappointment after the terrific District 9). Good Science-Fiction takes interesting questions about technology, human nature, outer space, and seeks to explore possible answers. They can be action-packed (The Terminator) or comedic (Wall-E) or head spinning (Primer), but they have to explore possibilities in a way only Science Fiction can.

Perhaps the solution to the broadness of the Science Fiction genre is being a little bit more selective about what gets to be called “Science Fiction”. The Action-Adventure genre can have Elysium – we don’t want it. In fact, they can have Gravity too. Gravity is a tremendous film, and one of the best of the year, but nothing about it is scientifically fictitious – everything in it is real, and it takes place today. It’s not Science Fiction – it’s a survival story on a space station.

Science Fiction is a special thing – a creative space for exploring new ideas, possible technologies, unpredicted futures. If other genres want to play around in this sandbox and borrow bits and pieces, that’s fine – but the distinction of “Science Fiction” should be held only by those who truly care about and are defined by their exploration of scientific possibility.

Thoughts about the Sci-fi genre and/or the films mentioned? We’d love to hear what you think!


Conor Holt is the writer, director, and producer of multiple short films. His most recent film, A Better Life, a science-fiction drama about marriage & control, which he directed & co-wrote, played at the 2013 Fargo Film Festival and the Twin Cities Film Fest, and recently won Best Editing & Visual Effects at the St. Cloud Film Festival. He is a graduate of the Minnesota State University Moorhead Film Studies program, and currently lives in Los Angeles, working odd jobs in the film industry and volunteering at film festivals.

For more information on A Better Life, check out the Facebook page at facebook.com/ABetterLifeShortFilm. Follow Conor on Twitter.

First Question of the Year: Which 2013 movie(s) do you appreciate but wouldn’t watch again?

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It’s been a bitterly c-cc-cold start to the new year here in my neck of the woods! I know I seem to be obsessing over the weather a lot but really, you’d understand when the *high* only reaches -2˚F (that’s -18˚ C!) and I’m super excited that Friday is going to hit 20 degrees (woot woot!) Yeah, it’s pathetic!

But hey, it’s not a weather blog so let’s talk about movies! As I’ve been writing some reviews of 2013 releases the past few days (stay tuned for my review of Nebraska later this week), it made me think of how I view some of those films now that it’s sunk in. More often than not, the reaction right after seeing the movie is pretty different than how I feel days or weeks later. There are some films I rate highly that I wish I’d watch again, sometimes right away (Frozen comes to mind, and on varying degrees HER, Nebraska, Austenland, and of course Pacific Rim, which I had watched twice since its theatrical release).

On the flip side though, there are films I appreciate and truly respect, but not something I’d ever want to see again. This question is kind of a different twist to what I posed a couple of years ago in regard to The Hurt Locker. A couple of movies that comes to mind (which sort of sparked this post), are Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street. In fact, I was originally going to title this ‘Movies I Appreciate but NOT Love.’ That’s perhaps an equally appropriate question, though there’s perhaps other reason why you don’t want to watch something a second time around. Interestingly, those two films come from beloved and celebrated filmmakers (the Coen Brothers and Martin Scorsese) whom I respect but their work are not exactly my cup of tea. In any case, both are good films, some would even call a masterpiece. But for me, I can only appreciate some aspects of the film (i.e. the performances) but as a whole, it’s not something I’d want to see again.


What about you folks? Which movies you saw in 2013 that you’re glad you saw but wouldn’t watch again?

November Movie-Watching Recap and Movie of the Month

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It’s almost time to say goodbye to 2013, can you believe it? I knew somehow November is going to go by like a breeze. It always feel that way when I went on a trip. Hence it hasn’t been a prolific month for blogging for me, nor a movie-watching one for that matter.

But hey, I got to spend Thanksgiving in Universal Studios which was a lot of fun! It was awesome spending some quality time with my BFF and took a stroll on Pacific Beach which was only minutes away on foot from her apartment. I also got to meet Fernando from Committed to Celluloid on the day I arrived in San Diego (read his post on our meet-up). What a treat that was, wish we had more time to chat but it was so lovely to meet one of my favorite bloggers!

Great company, scenery and awesome food, it was the best Thanksgiving ever!

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Well, here are some of my posts this past month:

The amount of films I watched last month is embarrassingly low, I’m hoping December will be a much better month for movie-viewing, esp. since I’ve RSVP-ed for five movies I’ve been looking forward to: American Hustle, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, Saving Mr. Banks, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Wolf of Wall Street, all taking place in the next three weeks! 😀


Movie of the Month:

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This is an easy one as I was floored by Spike Jonze‘s latest film. I barely knew anything about it but I saw the trailer just days before I saw the screening schedule and it intrigued me. Well let’s just say this would VERY likely end up in my Best of the Year list. Such a unique love story and startlingly-honest character study, and also one of the most intriguing sci-fi drama in recent memory. Joaquin Phoenix is simply superb in an understated and soul-baring role. Oh and Scarlett Johansson‘s voice acting is worth all the hype, stay tuned for a Question of the Week post inspired by her performance.


Well, that’s my monthly recap folks. What’s YOUR favorite film you saw in November?