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A Spike Jonze Love Story.
If most movies and television shows are to be believe, the rise of artificial intelligence can only spell certain doom for the bulk of humanity. Even Stephen Hawking jumped on the "A.I. is dangerous" bandwagon. Though I don't want to diminish concerns over what uses A.I. should be put to, it's worth noting that artificial intelligence is only the latest in a long line of technologies that have been promised to spell the doom for humanity. Bicycles, cars, microwaves, televisions, all have been prophesied to destroy the youth or spell imminent destruction. Instead, we've all integrated those technologies into our daily lives in such a way that they've become banal and everyday. If history is any judge, A.I. will similarly "normal" in the next couple of decades, and much like cars, televisions, and microwaves we'll wonder what we did without it. It's that kind of world that Spike Jonze presents in Her, and rather than spelling doom, the world' first artificially intelligent operating system instead helps a man find love.
Facts of the Case
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line) is a lonely writer who can't quite bring himself to sign divorce papers. Living a solitary existence, he decides to invest in a new artificially-intelligent operating system who dubs herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, Captain America: The Winter Soldier). As she insinuates herself into his digital life, Theodore finds himself falling for Samantha, and the feeling is mutual.
What most people forget about artificial intelligence is that, at least so far, we haven't made much progress in terms of replicating a machine that responds like a human. Instead, research into A.I. has given us a better understanding of how human intelligence works, from language processing to visual learning. Though the ultimate point of this kind of research might be to develop a stand-alone sentience, the fruit along the way is a better understanding of what it means to be human. This is precisely what Her gets right in its story of human/A.I. love. It doesn't matter whether, when we reach that point, it looks like an actual human/machine romance. What matters is that the film uses the device of the artificial intelligence to help us see the present more clearly. In a world where it's more and more possible to fall in love with people we've never physically met, Her is really about exploring what it means to have a romantic attachment in the digital era.
To give us a plausible view of Sam and Theodore's relationship, Spike Jonze conjures up a fantastical near-future Los Angeles. The city is bathed in golden colors and impossibly clean. Theodore inhabits a world that includes an elegant mixing of screens and projections that give weight to the idea that a truly responsive A.I. is possible. But this isn't entirely a techno-futuristic world either, but one that cleverly mixes retro tendencies as well. As a professional letter writer who sees his spoken words transformed into the client's handwriting, Theodore exists in a world that abandon's neither past nor future. Half the fun of watching Her is to see Spike Jonze tackle this world, giving us something both familiar and strange at the same time.
The other half of the fun are the performances. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson have impossible tasks. Phoenix has to sell us on a love story by himself. Most of the interactions between Sam and Theodore take place with only Phoenix in the frame, and he both sells the emotional aspects of his character and makes falling in love with a voice look interesting. Johansson, on the other hand, has to sell us a personality with just her voice, and it's a tragedy that she was ignored during awards season. Samantha is convincing both as a human-like construct and as a character that learns to grow…though I'm sure many viewers have Johansson's famous body in their minds when she speaks, it's her voice that really sells her attraction for Theodore. The other actors involved do a surprisingly good job living up to the intensity of these central performances. Amy Adams plays Theodore's counterpart, another lonely artist with A.I. sympathies, with the kind of down-the-earth grace that's in wonderfully sharp contrast to her role in American Hustle. Rooney Mara is perfectly cast as Theodore's ex who we mostly see in wordless flashbacks. Even there she conveys a strong sense of character. Olivia Wilde is also great as an early attempt at dating for Theodore, playing a slightly goofier take on her siren persona.
Her also benefits from an excellent Blu-ray release. The 1.85:1/1080 AVC-encoded transfer is suffused with a warm, golden glow that makes it gorgeous to watch. Close-ups, especially of Joaquin Phoenix's face, are filled with sharp detail, and no compression artifacts pop up to mar that detail. Black levels are also consistent and deep, giving many of the darker scenes a surprising amount of latitude. The DTS-HD 5.1 track isn't as immediately impressive, but it supports the movie perfectly as well. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the surrounds get use for atmosphere. Arcade Fire's much-lauded score sounds rich and deep as well.
Extras start with a 25 minute featurette directed by Lance Bangs, who sticks with the whole production to show us footage from production through to recording the score and marketing the movie. Then, we get a featurette (also from Bangs) that talks to a host of interesting people, from James Murphy to Bret Easton Ellis, about what it means to love in the contemporary world. There's also a "visual essay" that complies clips and sounds from the film to give a brief overview. This set also includes a DVD and UltraViolet digital copy of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced by Jonze's world. With its golden glow and boutique letter-writing company, I'm not sure how seriously I'm supposed to take this world. I can't shake the nagging feeling that Jonze is taking the proverbial piss. It's all just a little bit too twee. But maybe that's the point. Perhaps what I'm getting at is that Her will remain a well-acted, well-shot movie in the future, but I doubt that it's view of human romance will survive.
It should also be noted that Her is not an upbeat film. Much like Jonze's previous efforts, it's suffused with a melancholic spirit, so don't go in looking for a raucous good time.
Her is an interesting take on what romance means in our technology drive world. With excellent performances and solid direction, it's easy to recommend to fans of the genre.
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