A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.
After watching the trailer for Her I was incredibly excited by the project. The Sci-fi premise had me hooked from the off, and having Spike Jonze at the helm only helped to bolster my hopes. However, there was one scene in the trailer that struck me as a little off. In my excitement I was willing to overlook it. I wish I hadn’t.
Near the end of the trailer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) sits on his bed, ukelele in hand, and he tells a joke to his OS, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) . “What does a baby computer call its dad? Data”. The two break into (clearly fake) laughter. This little snippet perfectly captures the issue with Her. The film is so desperate to be twee and trendy that it fails to establish a convincing central romance. Without it Her‘s two hour running time becomes a slog, labouring through it’s intriguing yet thin central premise.
Her starts out quite promisingly. The (near)future world that has been created here is both beautiful to look at and has something interesting to say about the increasing role of technology in our lives. Theodore works for a company that writes “personal” and sentimental letters on behalf of their clients, to their loved ones. While hardly the most plausible of concepts, it goes along way to establishing a world in which it may be considered socially acceptable for a man to fall in love with his computer. That is no easy task.
Unfortunately, as soon as Samantha is turned on, things start to fall apart. The first conversation between Theodore and Samantha feels very forced. At first it seems to be a sign of nerves as the two characters meet for the first time, but it soon becomes apparent that every conversation will be like this. It is clear that Jonze is trying to show that the two have an instant connection, but all we get is them (rather unconvincingly) laughing at each others ironically bad jokes. The result is nauseating, like sitting in the back of a taxi with a couple who only refer to each other with cutesy pet names.
Half of the problem is that the characters either aren’t very well developed or aren’t likeable. In the case of Samantha it is at least excusable, she is after all a computer, and Scarlett Johansson does an admirable job of voicing her. Theodore on the other hand should have been developed better. The bottom line is that he isn’t particularly likeable. He comes across as something of a man-child, throwing tantrums at seemingly nothing. He is selfish and narcissistic, and we are never given any reason to sympathise with him.
Not helping matters is Joaquin Phoenix, who is borderline alienating as the films protagonist. Phoenix plays the role with same crazed energy as he did in The Master, and it is nowhere near as appropriate here. His wide-eyed stare and largely expressionless face only helps to make it harder to see the romance as anything other than strange. In one scene Phoenix runs through a fairground, playing a game with Samantha, with her watching on through a phone like device. This shouldn’t seem as weird as it does. We already have similar technology that would allow two people to do the same from opposite sides of the world, so it is not hard to imaging this being a charming and fun set-piece in the hands of the right actor. Here though the only people I found myself sympathising with were the passers-by, giving Theodore strange looks.
Her‘s saving grace, in the short time she has on screen, is Amy Adams. Her performance is understated and believable. It is also noticeable that, in her presence, Theodore is a much more grounded and relatable character. As a result her story line is easily one of the most interesting, and the (implied) romance between the two is much more engaging than the central one. Given a bit more screen-time, this relationship may have gone a long way to redeeming the film.
There are long periods in Her where nothing of great importance happens. Without a connection to the two central characters, these sequences are a real struggle to sit through. It is a testament to the cinematography that at times it is easy to simply switch off and watch the beautiful images on screen. The colour palette of the film is vivid and some of the cityscapes captured are truly stunning. Ultimately though this does little to make Her a fulfilling experience.
There are a few moments scattered throughout Her where the film starts to show signs of life. When Her runs with its central premise it is at its most interesting. As the films moves into its third act it starts to deal with how this technology impacts others and how the OS has a different perspective on what romance is. Here Samantha starts to develop into a much more interesting character. But, just as things start to become interesting, the film is brought to a close. Samantha’s arc would have been much more engaging if it would have hit its stride earlier on in the going.
I may be being a little harsh on Her, if only its central romance had been more engaging, or if it had concentrated more on its sci-fi premise, there was clearly potential for a much better film here. I understand that many already consider it to be a great film. This difference in opinion may well come down to this. If you can find your way to connecting with the relationship between Samantha and Theodore, you may find Her a rewarding experience, if not, there is not a lot else of note to see here.