Her ★★★★

"So, this is a prequel to "The Terminator" or, at least, "Wall-E."" - My thoughts after watching "Her."

At this point, it might be hard to add anything meaningful to the conversation regarding Spike Jonze's "Her." The artful and critically lauded piece of science fiction has been hailed as a romance for the ages and consistently rates as one of 2013's best films. To view the film after its critical and audience wave has crested is a challenging experience. Expectations may be unreasonably high, and to speak or write ill of the film may come off as having not understood the piece according to some other viewer's specifications. Regardless, there are plenty of viewers who will come to "Her," or any other celebrated film, victimized by these high expectations. It is a viewer-beware situation from here on in, and it is best to check those high expectations at the door, discovering the film on its terms and not those of anyone who has already seen it.

To be sure, "Her" is a fine film. Technically and artistically, the piece of work is beautifully crafted. Cinematography and production design create a world that is both similar and removed from the present day. Stylized shades of primary colors add warmth and quiet liveliness to the film.

The casting of "Her" is ideal. Joaquin Phoenix is pitch perfect as the sadsack letter writer who falls in love with his operating system. The faceless Scarlett Johannson does deftly crafted work, and Amy Adams rounds out the cast of characters by providing Phoenix's protagonist an actual human with whom to interact.

Superficially, the story is simple, but its internal and thematic layers may be many. Phoenix's protagonist, going through a divorce and trying to right the ship that is his life, is a letter writer. He provides the words and emotions for other people and their relationships in letter form. He is part of an engine that uses technology to falsify real life interactions. Unironically, he begins a relationship with an operating system, a feminine-voiced, disembodied series of ones and zeroes that organizes his e-mail and, eventually, provides him friendship and romance.

On one level the film is like any other romance-based film. Samantha, the OS, is like any romantic partner in any romantic film. Here, however, that partner is a piece of technology. On another level, the film is like any other romance-based film where courage is needed to love a partner who is out of the ordinary. True love takes bravery, and, like the bravery that is needed to introduce a partner who is different than one's family or friends expect, the love of Samantha requires that type of courage.

On its most disturbing level, the film quietly exposes the idea that technology is the destroyer of true and authentic human interaction. If humans are able to love artificially voices with a propensity to learn, what purpose do other living, breathing humans serve. Does the reliance on technology and the artificial things to which it gives rise lead to a dependence on it to the detriment of a need for other human beings? Is this where humanity is headed? It is a frightening thought that some people may be perfectly happy with an affirmative response the aforementioned question. "Her" may not be a horror film, but it does ask startling questions that belie its gentle facade; and those questions are scary.

What does all of this mean for the film as a complete experience? It is a film that in all its candy-colored and future-world splendor is, at once, narratively simple and multi-layered. The romantic angle is genuine, and just because Samantha is not real does not mean that the protagonist's relationship with her does not lead to the same type of romantic trials that occur in most relationships, good or bad.
It is the harder questions, however, those about technology and the current reliance on it, that flavor the experience most dramatically. "Her" is not a sweet, romantic fable, and it may not even be truly likable. It is, however, a poignant and powerful cautionary tale. While Jonze's film is impressive on nearly every cinematic level, it is these cautionary themes that give the film its true impact.

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