By on January 18, 2014

Watching “Her,” I was struck by the fact that what I was watching was either the most romantic, sweet-natured movie I’ve seen in many a moon- or the scariest horror movie. As the story progressed, I couldn’t help but think of HAL, the artificially-intelligent computer of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and thinking: boy, if that computer had the voice of Scarlett Johansson, I’d be so screwed if I were Dave.

It just goes to show you how crucial casting is with things like “Her.” When I heard that Johansson had been nominated and even won awards for her performance here, I sort of scoffed, even though I’m a huge fan of her, no pun intended. I mean, come on: it’s a voiceover, right? She’s not even technically in the movie! And yet, she truly is, in all the ways that count.

I mean, it’s no wonder they recast the role of “Samantha” (it was originally Samantha Morton, so one guesses they retained the name as a tribute), as it’s the key to the whole movie working. Think about it this way. What if the voice Joaquin Phoenix heard was, say, Fran Drescher, of “The Nanny”? Or Sofia Vergara? Or Ariana Grande, in her “Cat Valentine” mode? It’d be a completely different movie- certainly more of a comedy, at the very least.

But with Scarlett behind the wheel- or the drive, as it were (pun intended this time) – it totally works. You fully buy that a lonely guy going through a heartbreaking divorce would fall for a SIRI-type operation system with a consciousness that grows as “she” learns more and more about the world and assimilates all of the information rapidly being uploaded every day, both from her interactions with Theodore (Phoenix) and from surveying the wealth of information at her metaphoric fingertips via the internet.

As Samantha learns, she becomes more and more human, until, perhaps inevitably, she wants more. But what can you do if you’re more of a program than an actual living, breathing person? The remainder of the movie deals with that quandary and it’s a fascinating one, and not one with an easy resolution, to be sure.

Set in the not-so-distant future, “Her” imagines a world in which people are rarely without computers at the ready. Not that we’re too far away from that already, but the film works precisely because it’s not too far-fetched to believe something like this actually happening. It used to be if you saw someone walking down the street talking to themselves, you assumed they had a mental illness of some kind or the like. Now it’s just as likely, if not more so, that they’re actually talking to someone on a Bluetooth or something of that nature.

Likewise, something like Google Glass shows that immersing yourself into a computer world is already happening as well, and there are already videogame systems that work via motion sensors. Can something like we see in “Her” really be that far off? The question is, is that a good thing? Will it end well? Or will we become a nation of shut-ins who’d rather interact with virtual people than real ones? (Also already happening, thanks to the likes of Facebook.)

That said, as key as believability and the casting of the readily identifiable and sexy/husky voice of Scar Jo is, Phoenix may well be the real reason it works in the end. After all, everything was pretty much shot when Johansson was brought in to re-record things from scratch. If her voice helps to convince the viewer a guy could fall in love with a computer, then it’s Phoenix that sells it.

Although I’ve liked some of his performances in the past, Phoenix kind of rubbed me the wrong way with all that “I’m Still Here” nonsense, in which he tried to pull a fast one and convince everyone he was quitting acting to pursue a rap career. Few took him seriously, and it’s no wonder: it was all a hoax, and not a very clever one at that- just ask David Letterman, who famously mocked Phoenix a new one when he tried to pull his shenanigans on “The Late Show.”

In some ways, “Her” seems like Phoenix’s mea culpa, his way of saying: “I’m sorry” for being a jackass. “This is what real art looks like,” his performance seems to say, and he would be right. “Her” is a beautifully rendered, deeply felt movie that will get you thinking at the same time it pulls at your heartstrings. Had I seen it before the year’s end, it almost certainly would have made my best-of list, and it earns a well-deserved A+.

Director Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) who I love, but whose work has always seemed a bit too arch and arty for its own good, really outdoes himself with the script, which he wrote and marks his first such effort to make it to the big screen. Here’s hoping it’s not his last, because Jonze’s work has never felt more alive, more human- which is an irony in and of itself, when you consider the subject matter. This, of course, makes it fit alongside his other work perfectly, while simultaneously taking it to a new level.

At over two hours, “Her” is maybe a hair longer than it needs to be, but it also allows the story to unfold at a logical pace, sucking you in as Phoenix’s character gets sucked into an unlikely relationship with his computer. When things take a turn for the unexpected, it makes perfect sense, and I think the viewer needs a little time to take it all in, so the length is fairly justified overall.

It’s definitely the sort of movie that gets you to think, and I think many will contemplate what they’d do in Phoenix’s shoes themselves. And aren’t those the best kinds of movies: the ones that stick with you? “Her” definitely does, and the concept alone and the ramifications of it make it worth the journey.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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