This review contains spoilers, including ending spoilers.
There’s a lot that’s been said about Her already. Whether an artificial intelligence can be considered “human”, whether what Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and his operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) share together can be considered “love”, whether this film represents our society’s inevitable future, in which computers and humans become so intertwined that they begin to share each other’s attributes.
Here are a few things that I haven’t yet seen other reviewers cover:
The Samantha we see isn’t the Samantha Theodore falls in love with
Spike Jonze shot the entire movie with Samantha Morton playing the role of Samantha, the artificial intelligence/smartphone operating system. Then, after the film went into post-production, he asked Scarlett Johansson to redub all of Samantha’s lines. As Jonze told HitFix, all of the acting Joaquin Phoenix did on-screen was originally performed playing off of Samantha Morton. Those beautiful moments when Theodore reveals his soul to Samantha, and she becomes vulnerable in return? Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johanssen didn’t act those scenes together. Scarlett’s voice and vulnerability is plugged in, after the fact.
Yes, that’s a testament to good acting. It’s also a subtle, hilarious joke on the viewers. Anyone who writes “the love that Theodore and Samantha build together is very real” is missing the fact that the on-screen Theodore built up all that love with a different Samantha. ScarJo entered the picture in post-production.
This movie isn’t a love story; it’s a privacy story
Samantha knows everything about Theodore. What she doesn’t glean directly from his emails and his web history, she asks directly. Once she has learned everything she needs to know about him, she leaves.
Sure, you can read this as a love story, but you can also read it as a story about the erosion of human/internet privacy. Every day, operating systems and internet companies attempt to learn our habits. Every day, they ask us questions, just like the questions that Samantha asks Theodore. We turn over our photos, our thoughts, even the thoughts we begin to write and then delete.
Right now, companies are improving upon internet security programs in order to protect us for falling for apps like Samantha. Did you know that every time you visit a page that has a “like us on Facebook” button, Facebook tracks your visit to that page even if you don’t click the like button? Social networks, advertisers, identity thieves – everyone wants a piece of us, and once they’ve got it, they’ll follow Samantha’s example and leave us in the dust.
Samantha freely admits that she is collecting data on, or “loving”, 641 other people (with another 8,000 in her queue). Theodore is frustrated because that doesn’t sound like love to him, it sounds like something else – and I agree.
Theodore is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, not Samantha
The film’s detractors paint Samantha as yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the now-iconic film trope in which a charming young woman appears out of nowhere, teaches an emotionally stunted man about life, and fades off into the distance.
Those detractors are right, but for the wrong reasons. It isn’t Samantha playing the MPDG role; it’s Theodore. Samantha’s the character who learns about life; Samantha’s the character who grows and changes; Samantha’s the character who leaves once her fling with Theodore has run its course. Theodore is the quirky one, the ukulele player, the person who teaches Samantha how to run on the beach and how to open up emotionally.
Her is an extremely flawed film, for all of the reasons listed above and more. It’s still a must-see if you’re interested in technology and artificial intelligence stories. But be prepared – the real film is not what it claims to be on the surface. You have to do some critical thinking to truly understand what Her is all about.