Before I begin in earnest to tell you why “Her” was the best film released in 2013, I feel that there is an issue that needs to be addressed: yes, this film really is about a man falling in love with his operating system.
For some, like the two women who walked out of the theater when I saw this film, this plot detail seems to be an insurmountable deterrent, and that is a fact that deeply saddens me. For those that can push past their reservations about a relationship between a man and an operating system, they will find that writer and director Spike Jonze has crafted one of the most poignant and moving examinations of relationships and loneliness in recent cinema history.
“Her” is set in Los Angeles in the near future, and virtually everyone is connected at all times to cell phone-like devices, but it seems that despite this constant connection, everyone is isolated. “Her” tells the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Pheonix) and his relationship with his operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).
Theodore is a man who makes his living by writing love letters for others. Unfortunately, his ability to write beautiful expressions of love for others does not translate into a robust social life. His childhood best friend-turned-wife has separated from him and filed for divorce, and his social life is nearly nonexistent.
It is at this point that the depressed, listless and lonesome Theodore meets Samantha, his personalized version of the first sentient operating system. Their romance begins inconspicuously, with Samantha cleaning up Theodore’s files and organizing his digitized materials, but from the onset it is apparent that there is more to their relationship than either initially realizes. Throughout the film, the relationship waxes and wanes in an incredibly lifelike manner as both Theodore and Samantha grow as individuals, with Theodore rediscovering his will for life while Samantha discovers the world for the first time.
Conflicts inevitably occur, as one would expect in a relationship of this sort. Theodore and Samantha struggle with her lack of a physical body and the fact that Samantha possesses an intellect that dwarfs what a human brain can do. It is in the conflict where “Her” truly shines. Theodore and Samantha’s struggles are portrayed so realistically that their distinctly nonhuman issues feel immensely real.
To Spike Jonze’s credit, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship in this film is one of the most natural I have ever seen on screen. Jonze manages to capture the small intimacies of a relationship and present them in a way that manages to avoid being overly sentimental or sappy.
From timid beginnings and flirtations to pointless fights and ultimate reconciliation, Samantha and Theodore’s relationship feels anything but artificial. Their joy feels so genuine, and their struggles are so heartbreaking. That is also a testament to the actors, as both Phoenix and Johansson shine in their roles, with a chemistry that is so vivid, despite the fact that Johansson is never on screen.
The story and acting are complemented by a background that feels completely tangible. The scenery of future Los Angeles is incredibly beautiful and believable, and the cinematography is gorgeous, with rich color play and incredible lighting.
“Her” is a film that manages to deftly blend the best elements of science fiction, comedy and romance in two thought-provoking hours. It succeeds on all fronts with an incredible story, superb acting and powerful film techniques that all culminate in an emotional impact that few films have ever had on me.
I have never been one to cry during a movie, but this film had my eyes watering for most of the second half. It also made me laugh harder, smile wider and dream bigger than any other film released in 2013. Spike Jonze and his cast have made a genuine piece of art.