Like the buzz surrounding Inside Llewyn Davis, the critical praise on Her may have ballooned audience expectations to a point the film itself cannot sustain. Where outlandish crime epics like The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle are big enough and loud enough to dismiss naysayers with a shrug and a middle finger, Her is a small, precious object. For lack of a better analogy, watching Her in a crowded multiplex was a bit like watching someone read pages from a favorite book aloud and, once it ends, finding yourself hyper-aware of the way your reactions are different from (or, occasionally, in tune with) the people around you. It's the kind of movie that makes you feel protective... if you like it. From my vantage, Her was something as beautiful and emotionally rich as it was terrifying. The further the film dared to go, the more impressed I was with its construction, and the less I knew precisely where it would opt to end. When the conclusion arrived, I was shocked that no one around me seemed to have the same emotional experience. When my friends discussed Her over dinner, I can't say I understood where they were coming from at all. I was surprised by the level of their disdain, and by the way they were so thoroughly unconvinced by what I’d found utterly believable. But maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. This distinct polarity is one I've seen mirrored in Twitter conversations and in the comments on other blogs: some people think the film is brilliant, others think it's this boring, clunky "love story" made pretentious by this weird public perception of its Spike Jonzeness.
I recognize that Her is the type of movie that invites a strong emotional response, positive or negative. While I’d argue it’s exquisitely crafted, top to bottom, there seems to be no point in trying to sway you, dear reader, towards one opinion or the other. All I can really do is tell you why I loved it (sincerely).
Her is not a love story in the conventional sense. It pretends to be one, it may even call itself one, and there are moments where we are meant to mistake the depth of feeling between Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as something that could be described as love. Theodore certainly believes that what he feels is love. For Theodore, the relationship he shares with his operating system (for that's what Samantha is) is something that he actively defines as a romantic entanglement. When he becomes comfortable with the concept, he freely tells people that he's dating his OS. He describes the relationship they're having, he goes on double dates, and he speaks of her as if she possesses a personality far beyond her programming. The fact, though, is that she both does and does not; that Samantha is always illusion, that what she refers to as emotions are programmed responses, that her intelligence may grow, but that she was designed to do so. Samantha is a disembodied voice, a reflection of Theodore's self who is (whether he recognizes it or not) initially launched as a direct response to his personality preferences. The film makes a point of reminding us of this repeatedly, often via real human women who cite Theodore's shortcomings as an inability to deal with complicated human emotions and empathize appropriately. His soon-to-be ex-wife (Rooney Mara) chides him for his failure in this regard, and a one-time date (Olivia Wilde) refers to him as 'creepy' after he shuts down in the face of her own emotional vulnerability. So, Her is more of a self-love story: a tale of projected narcissism, of disrupted human communication, and of the way technology paradoxically allows us to turn further inward even as we are so constantly, vitally connected.
This is where the true brilliance of Her lies. It's a smart movie that twists science fiction towards a very twee sort of realism, yes, but what it gets really right is a sort of fragility of human emotions. The further Samantha and Theodore connect, the more surreal the film becomes and the more we may want Samantha to somehow manifest as "real." The fact that she isn't and can never be, though, works all the more strongly to forward the film's central thesis. In creating a world where characters seem to want to detach and avoid human interaction, the necessity of connection is written all the more clearly. What Theodore desires in devoting himself to Samantha is a companionship that cannot, ultimately, be satisfied via technology ---however advanced it may appear. It's that understanding that makes the film so heartbreaking and so, so good. It's not that they can't connect, it's the envisioning of a world in which Theodore (and those around him) would ever not want to.