Her (2013)

Dir. Spike Jonze

Written by: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara


Her is one of the most recent movies in my collection, and it’s one of the very last movies that I ever purchased on home video. By the time Her came out on DVD in May of 2014, I was already primarily consuming all of my media through streaming services. My DVD collection had seldom grown in the past couple of years, but I was compelled to add this particular movie to my collection. Despite knowing that with the breadth of streaming services and premium channels available to me, I could likely dial up a popular, recent movie like Her at any time, I needed to own it. Such was the impact that this movie had on me when I saw it in the theater in early 2014, after having just experienced a recent minor heart break. I clung to the movie after that first viewing, declaring it one of my favorites of 2013, a year in which I made it a point to see a great many of the critically-acclaimed films. In the weeks after seeing Her, I played over small moments from the film in my head, comparing them to my own experience of loss. Admittedly, nearly five years later, watching the movie again I realize how short-sightedly maudlin my initial appreciation of it might have been, but I still find Her to be a richly evocative movie that plumbs emotional depths and treats the audience to a sumptuous imagining of a tech-driven near future. Spike Jonze crafts a heartbreakingly beautiful love story in his first solo script, and he further explores the nuances of modern love that he explored in his early collaborations with Charlie Kaufman. It’s a lovely movie that I’m glad to have fallen in love with, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

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The titular Her is Samantha (Johansson), an operating system on a tablet with whom introverted, romantic, lonely poet Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) falls in love. Theodore lives in Los Angeles, sometime in the not-too-distant future, in a world in which people have become even more enamored with their PDAs and other screened devices. Theodore is adrift in this impersonal world, still reeling from the dissolution of his marriage over a year ago, working a dispiriting job in which he pens happy couples’ love letters for them. He has alienated his few friends, including his close friend, Amy (Adams), preferring to spend his evenings alone with his personal assistant and his video games. That all changes, however, when Theodore’s, and everyone else’s, computers are updated to feature a new artificial intelligence-based operating system that will function as a personalized virtual assistant and colleague. Theodore’s OS names herself Samantha, and, within a matter of weeks, the two have sprouted up first, a friendship, and then, an uneasy romance. Though it lacks the physicality of a traditional romantic relationship, the bond that Theodore and Samantha form is emotional and real, and the affections that the two share for one another are, too. Samantha is the coolly unattainable, but imminently approachable woman who Theodore desires, and Theodore provides a human outlet for Samantha to begin to experience the world. Inevitably, though, Samantha, with her computer brain’s limitless ability to expand and process experience and information, begins to outgrow Theodore. He is left devastated, trying to pick up the pieces of a relationship that, on the surface, seemed so immaterial.

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The premise of Her would be laughable if we weren’t in a pervasively digital era, in which people are free to meet and bond online, sharing mutual interests and experiences. In the age of online dating, long distance relationships, and catfishing, meeting someone on the Internet and allowing a friendship or romantic relationship to bloom has become extremely commonplace. Jonze simply takes this idea and stretches it to its most extreme iteration, essentially crafting a love story in which a man falls in love with a personification of the Internet itself. It’s conceptually daring and high-minded, to be sure, but at its root, Her is a fairly conventional love story. Theodore and Samantha form an unlikely pair, but the stages of their courtship would be familiar to anyone who has ever fallen in love, and the ups and downs of their relationship are blissfully and painfully real. Jonze is careful to depict their love as being rooted in deep and true emotions, rather than some tech fetish, as he allows the audience to contrast Theodore and Samantha’s relationship with Theodore’s unsuccessful attempts at connecting with real humans through virtual means. Their relationship is certainly untraditional, but it seems almost quaint in its simplicity and earnestness, and in the unabashed love that the two exhibit for one another.

This central relationship wouldn’t ring as true, though, without the stellar performances of Phoenix and Johansson. I don’t know that I had really recognized Johansson for the great actress that she’s become until I saw Her. I had often enjoyed her performances in movies that I’d seen her in, but her performance as the disembodied voice of Samantha elevated her status as an actor in my mind. Through a purely vocal performance, Johansson is able to fully flesh out Samantha’s character and personality. Her vocal inflections and expert timing lend a layer of humanity to the OS that feels slightly unnatural, at first, but then becomes unmistakably warm and inviting. She gives Samantha sass, feeling, and depth. Her performance is memorable, and it made me realize just how unmistakable her voice is. She plays Samantha as coy and playful, but also vulnerable, searching for meaning and identity. Jonze’s excellent script helps to provide Samantha with some of her layers, but its Johansson’s performance that truly brings the character to life and turns her into a relatable, sympathetic presence.

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Theodore is a somewhat thornier character, not entirely sympathetic, but played to excellent pathos by Phoenix. I’ve long felt that Phoenix was a great artist, and I think that in time he’ll be recognized as one of the best actors of his generation. He is able to shift seamlessly from character to character, channeling different facets of the human experience for each role. The change up in demeanor that he shows from a signature performance in The Master, released just a year before Her, is indicative of the range that he possesses as an actor. Gone are the outbursts and the primal, animalistic rage that he displays in the latter film, replaced here with a gentleness and a reticence previously unforeseen. There’s a bit of the everyman in Theodore, but his social development is stunted just slightly from the trauma of his failed marriage, and Phoenix displays this interiority subtly and masterfully. Though he spends much of the film closed off, watching Phoenix unfurl his easy smile as Theodore’s world begins to open up through his relationship with Samantha is one of the film’s small pleasures. Once his walls begin to come down, Phoenix plays Theodore with a weightless, if nerdy, charm. Theodore is a somewhat unlikable character, prone to self-defeat and neurosis, but it’s hard not to be won over by Phoenix’s nuanced performance.

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Jonze creates a sumptuous visual world for his characters to inhabit. The Los Angeles that he imagines is familiar, maybe a decade or two advanced beyond our world, but filled with just enough technological advances and novelties to give it a sense of whimsy and wonder, placing the film squarely in the realm of speculative fiction. Technology in Her is pervasive but never insistent. Jonze uses screens and virtual reality to give us a glimpse of life in his near-future, but they are merely the window dressing on the human love story that he wants to tell. Technology exists all around, and as such, its presence doesn’t hamper Jonze’s desire to explore a breezy, sun-splashed world. The exteriors of Her are bathed in warm light, and Jonze uses a summery color palette full of warm hues that reflect the film’s inherent romanticism. A love story between a man and an operating system could certainly be an interiorly-focused film, and one without many humanistic touches, but Jonze’s direction and mise-en-scene breathe warm life into Her. Much like in his work with frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman, Jonze’s visual work provides a grounding and inviting element to a script that could otherwise become esoteric and inaccessible.

Her is a movie that still feels incredibly real and raw when I watch it. I’ve watched and rewatched it a half dozen times in the last few years, and though I’ve grown past the disappointment that I was feeling from a rejection on my initial viewing, it’s a movie that manages to make me feel emotions that few others can. A beautiful relationship, whether it be romantic or platonic, should be about growth and learning, and supporting a partner as they grow and learn, too. The only thing constant in life is change, and as humans we are always changing and growing through experiential learning. In Samantha’s awakening, Her depicts exactly the sort of growth that we should all hope for our partners, but it also accurately depicts the pain that can be caused when one half of a partnership outgrows the other, or grows in new and different directions. Love can be scary, and it can be beautiful, and it can feel immensely overpowering, opening up new experiences and ways of being, and I think that Her captures all of that perfectly. It’s a movie that calls into question what it means to feel, what it means to be human, and it finds the core of humanity in the desire and ability to connect. That connection can be physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual, or, at times, all of the above, as we see in Her through Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. It’s an earnest and honest movie, one that isn’t afraid to wallow in the depths of sadness and explore the dizzying heights of euphoric love, and it’s a movie that I likely won’t ever tire of returning to when I’m looking to feel affirmed of my own humanity.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke

Starring: Keir Dullea


I’m not sure what I can say about 2001: A Space Odyssey that hasn’t already been said. Universally considered one of the best films ever made, 2001’s place in the pantheon of cinema isn’t in question. 2001 is Stanley Kubrick’s meditation on human progress, and his first (and possibly only) foray into the realm of the cinematically sublime. The film, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, charts the history of the development of human intelligence, beginning with the spark of human intelligence in a group of our simian ancestors, and jumping forward into the (then) far future, where human minds had outgrown their earthly concerns and turned their gaze to the stars. The film’s speculative and visionary subject matter is reflected in Kubrick’s grandiose imagery and sublime visual poetry.

2001 opens with a segment titled “The Dawn of Man,” in which we see a group of apes begin their evolutionary journey, as they learn to use tools and wage war. Their leap in intelligence is sparked by the appearance of a vibrating black monolith, which seems to bestow knowledge upon those who encounter it. Fast forwarding millennia, the film then shows us a speculative year 2001, in which space travel has become commonplace, and in which a second monolith has been discovered in a crater on the moon. This monolith is transmitting signals in the direction of Jupiter, and the quest to find its source informs the primary plot of 2001. The film’s more narrative middle section shows us life aboard the space ship Discovery, where astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), along with their on-board computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) have taken on the quest of finding the source of the monolith’s transmission. What they find, both on Discovery, and beyond Jupiter brings into question the nature of humanity, and humanity’s role in the larger universe.


I first encountered 2001 right around the year 2001, when I was about 16 years old, and I was wholly unprepared to digest the film’s dense, philosophical themes. It was, however, the first time that I can remember being completely in awe of a film. I had never experienced a film whose visuals so greatly impacted and enchanted me, and in so many different ways. The early portions of the film perfectly capture the mundane minutiae of space travel in the year 2001, where our journey to the stars has been commodified and coopted by corporate sponsorship. The film’s final segment, in which astronaut Dave Bowman encounters the source of human intelligence, and is able to experience the evolution of man into his next form, are visually spectacular by contrast. Bowman’s journey beyond Jupiter is presented as a psychedelic blur of color and shape, assaulting the senses and jarring the viewer after experiencing the first two hours of the film which are meditative and defined by their restraint and glacial pacing. I was hooked.

Over roughly the next five years of my life, 2001 was my favorite film, and Kubrick was undoubtedly my favorite filmmaker. I shared the film with anyone who would allow me, attempting to tease out its mysteries through shared viewership and late night dorm room conversations. It wasn’t for everyone. I can remember bringing the VHS home from the public library for the first time and my father telling me the story of when he went to see 2001 in 1969. The film’s pacing, length, and lack of dialogue turned him off. He said that he walked out during the film’s famous docking sequence set to Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz”, thinking, “What did I just pay money to see?” But for me, the esoteric nature of the film was a part of its appeal. Not only had I never before seen a film that posed such deep philosophical questions, I had never seen a film that felt as if it were a question that needed to be answered itself. I felt rewarded with each repeat viewing as I started to formulate my own answers to the film’s internal riddles, and the beauty of the film began to reveal itself to me with each subsequent trip beyond Jupiter.


After some time, though, I no longer felt the need to continue to revisit this classic. My familiarity with its structure, its classic shots, and its cerebral questing was total. However, as I moved on from 2001 in my early 20s, and began to revisit Kubrick’s other films, I gained a new appreciation for 2001 and began to regard it in a different light. I began to appreciate what I referred to earlier as the sublime visual poetry on display in the film. When I watched the film after having read Michel Ciment’s Kubrick, an in-depth examination of the director’s films and visual style, and after fully experiencing the director’s entire body of work, I began to be interested in 2001 less for its inherent mysteries than in its ability to elevate the cold and the artificial to a place of warmth and emotion through its visual style. 2001 may be the Kubrick film least interested in human-centered narratives, but ironically, I find it to be his most emotionally in depth work, and it is certainly the Kubrick film that elicits the most emotional response from me.


The grandeur of the Blue Danube sequence, when we are first given a glimpse of Earth from space, and introduced to the realities of space travel in the year 2001, is a perfect marriage of sound and image and an introduction to what I have been referring to as the film’s sublime visual poetry. The sequence, which is free of any dialogue, links human artistic achievement in Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” with human technological achievement and prowess in the impressive space ships. Following immediately after the “Dawn of Man” segment that opens the film and which is linked visually to that sequence through the famous graphic match of a bone with a space ship, the “Blue Danube” sequence underscores the progress that humanity has made, while also serving as a reminder that despite our technological and cultural achievements, man and his creations are still dwarfed by the awesome void of outer space. The juxtaposition of the mundane (a man falling asleep in his chair while watching television) with the fantastical or awe-inspiring (that man’s chair being on a spacecraft, where a flight attendant casually retrieves his pen before it floats away in the zero gravity environment), are at the heart of the film’s exploration of the sublime. It is a dichotomy that Kubrick returns to again and again, underscoring the insignificance of man’s activities on the Universal scale, while at the same time acknowledging man’s destiny and deserved place among the stars.

The film’s final scene returns to this juxtaposition, as Bowman goes beyond Jupiter, and is confronted with both his mortality, and evidence of man’s ultimate evolutionary destiny. At the end of his journey, Bowman finds himself in a lavishly decorated apartment where he watches himself live and age, eventually becoming a bedridden old man. The scene gives the impression that Bowman understands that he is on display, much like an animal in a zoo, as he goes through the end of his life alone,  eating meals quietly. Just before he is going to die, Bowman is presented with the monolith, and as he reaches out for it, accepting both its knowledge and his place in the Universe, he is reincarnated as the Star Child. Bowman becomes the next step in man’s evolutionary development, a being of pure energy, seemingly possessive of the answers to the mysteries of the Universe. In the final shot of the film, the Star Child returns to Earth, accompanied by the strains of Wagner’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” Again Kubrick is juxtaposing his beautiful images with established classical music to indicate the presence of the sublime. While there is some debate on the role of the Star Child, I believe that he returned to Earth as an ambassador, not a warrior or a weapon. His role is to elevate mankind and show the ultimate potential of humans to ascend to a higher plane among the stars.


Upon this rewatch, I was instantly reminded of the awe I felt that first time I watched 2001 as a teenager. I hadn’t seen the film in its entirety in at least five years, but as I mentioned, its rhythms feel like they’re a part of my unconscious, always playing in the background of my dreams. Watching it again, on a new Bluray disc that I purchased about three years ago after realizing that I no longer had my DVD copy, I was immediately taken in by the film’s beauty. The transfer was great, and I was able to watch the film with more visual clarity than I ever had before. The sterile white of the film’s space ship interiors seemed to pop off the screen when contrasted with the vast blackness of the outer space exteriors. The colors in the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence at the film’s end were hallucinogenic and brighter than I remembered them being. I was taken in by the films rhythms, which were still so familiar, but which I hadn’t experienced in so long. Everything about the pacing is perfect, from the tense, episodic structure of the “Dawn of Man” segment, to the fluid, yet precise construction of the “Blue Danube” sequence, the film is a master work in editing. Although the only real narrative tension doesn’t appear until very late in the film’s second act, it is propelled forward by its beautiful imagery and excellent craftsmanship. I was again left with the feeling that the film was being presented as a question, or maybe as a challenge. I thought nearly a decade ago that I had unraveled all of this film’s secrets, but I’m sure now that I never really will. It should probably work its way back into my yearly rotation, though.

12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys (1995)

Dir. Terry Gilliam

Written by: Chris Marker (inspired by La Jetee), David Peoples, Janet Peoples

Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt

This particular movie is a great one to start off with, because it is likely to be fairly emblematic of the nature of this project. Many of the films that I’ll be writing about in this series are ones that I haven’t viewed in years, however they always remain on the periphery of my film viewing consciousness. The physical presence of the cases on the shelf a reminder of half a life of serious film viewership and a latent urge towards criticism. Many of the films that will come are not essential or classic, but they helped to shape my journey into the world of cinema. In the age of streaming where there are countless films available at the press of a button, and it’s possible to spend as much time surfing through titles trying to choose a film to watch as you actually spend watching the film, it’s easy to get swept up in searching for new, unfamiliar titles. That access has been wonderful, if sometimes daunting, but it has also led me to ignore some of the formative films that I had regarded as important or valuable earlier in my life.



12 Monkeys is a time travel thriller alternating between a dystopian future where the last remaining humans on Earth have been forced underground and a present on the brink of an extinction level event. James Cole (Willis), a prisoner who has been volunteered to go back in time on a fact finding mission, is our entry point into this world. Initially sent to the year 1990, Cole is admitted to a mental hospital, where he meets psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe), as well as fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Pitt), who is later revealed to be the leader of radical environmental activist group the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Cole eventually escapes the mental hospital and is returned to his present before being sent back through time to track Goines and the Army of the 12 Monkeys, who are believed to be behind the virus that will eventually nearly wipe out humanity. Back in 1996, Cole finds and kidnaps Dr. Railly, enlists her help in locating Goines and preventing the release of the virus, and eventually convinces her of the truth of his story. All the while, Cole is plagued by vivid, recurring dreams of a boy witnessing a foot chase and a shooting in an airport.


I picked up this movie sometime around 2003 I would imagine, when I was a junior in high school. I had seen the movie on cable, and I would imagine I probably picked it up because I liked Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt as the leads, and maybe to a lesser extent because of Terry Gilliam. At that point I was probably most familiar with Gilliam as a member of Monty Python, and for directing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is still a favorite but not in my collection anymore, apparently. I still like Willis’s performance in this and most of his movies, Brad Pitt less so. I feel like his performances from the 90s haven’t always aged well. Although I haven’t gone back to it in probably seven or eight years, 12 Monkeys is still a very enjoyable sci-fi movie. The steam/cyber-punk aesthetic seems a bit dated, but Gilliam’s trademark imagery and directorial style are on full display, and he steers the complex narrative through its temporal slips with relative ease. The film’s twist ending is still poignant, even if it is a bit predictable.


The biggest difference in watching 12 Monkeys for me now, is that I can now watch it with the experience of having seen Chris Marker’s 1962 experimental short La Jetee, which inspired the film. 12 Monkeys borrows liberally from the earlier film, lifting its concept of a prisoner who is enlisted to return to the past in order to prevent a future apocalypse. Cole’s dreams of the shooting in the airport are also directly inspired by La Jetee. Marker’s film is great in its simplicity, as it is presented as a series of still photos with voice over narration explaining the story of the time traveler. Gilliam’s film is to be commended for taking as its source material something that is decidedly anti-cinematic and ballooning it into a richly visual cinematic world. While the world of La Jetee is purposefully obscure, allowing the story to exist outside of both time and place, 12 Monkeys is very clearly rooted in both a time and a place. Gilliam takes the philosophical core of La Jetee and fleshes out the narrative, providing a context and specificity not present in the original. Because of these adaptations, 12 Monkeys stands on its own as an engaging thriller. Familiarity with the film’s source material helps to add a bit of symbolic weight that Gilliam doesn’t fully explore when depicting Cole’s dreams of the airport, but 12 Monkeys is a wholly original film built on Gilliam’s memorable visual style and a strong lead performance by Willis. I feel that La Jetee is certainly an interesting film, but 12 Monkeys is ultimately the more entertaining and satisfying movie experience.