Spike Jonze doesn't waste any time introducing us to the technology at the center of Her. "An operating system that can mimic human sentience?" a dangerously lonely Joaquin Phoenix wonders after catching glimpse of an ad in a transit station. "Don't mind if I do!" (He doesn't actually say that, don't worry.) But by the time we're meant to believe that such a world can seamlessly integrate characters like Scarlett Johansson's automated voice Samantha into the lives of living, breathing men and women like Phoenix's Theodore, we're already established residents of this arresting, icy, quivering world the filmmaker has built. We meet Theodore midway through his recitation of a "handwritten letter" he penned on behalf of a woman to her husband of many years. That's his job — tapping into his own unique sensititivies to play ghostwriter for people hoping to adorn their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, and children with personal notes of personal affection. Theodore is no independent contractor; he's part of a thriving company, and we almost get the feeling that the folks on the receiving end of these letters are in the know. Before we ever encounter Samantha, we're embedded in the central conceit of the movie: emotional surrogacy is an industry on the rise.
What makes Jonze's world so palatable is that, beneath its marvelously eerie aesthetic, this idea is barely science-fiction. Theodore, humbled and scarred by a recent divorce from lifelong love Catherine (Rooney Mara, who contrasts Johansson by giving a performance that, for a large sum of the movie, is all body and no voice), accesses the will to go on through interractions with video game characters and phone-sex hotlines. But the ante is upped with Samantha, the self-named operating system that Theodore purchases to stave off loneliness, deeming choice a far less contorting one than spending time with old pals like Amy (Amy Adams)... at first.
Samantha evolves rather quickly from an articulate Siri into a curious companion, who is fed and engaged by Theodore just as much as she feeds and engages him. Jonze paces his construction of what, exactly, Samantha is so carefully that we won't even catch the individual steps in her change — along with Theodore, we slowly grow more and more enamored and mystified by his computer/assistant/friend/lover before we can recognize that we're dealing with a different being altogether from the one we met at that inceptive self-aware "H-hello?" But Jonze lays tremendous groundwork to let us know this story is all for something: all the while, as the attractions build and the hearts beat faster for Samantha, we foster an unmistakable sense of doom. We can't help but dread the very same perils that instituted one infamous admission: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
But Jonze's sci-fi constructs are so cohesively intertwined with his love story that our dread doesn't exactly translate to an anticipation of HAL's hostile takeover. Her wedges us so tightly between Theodore and Samantha that our fears of the inevitable clash between man and machine apprehend a smaller, more intimate ruin. As Samantha's growth become more surprising and challenging to Theodore, to herself, and to us, the omens build for each.
And although all three parties know better, we cannot help but affix ourselves to the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha, and to the possibility that we're building toward something supreme. A good faction of this is due to the unbelievable performances of Phoenix — representing the cautious excitement that we all know so painfully well — and Johansson, who twists her disembodied voice so empathetically that we find ourselves, like Theodore, forgetting that we have yet to actually meet her. The one castigation that we can attach to the casting of Johansson is that such a recognizable face will, inevitably, work its way into our heads when we're listening to her performance. It almost feels like a cheat, although we can guarantee that a performance this good would render a figure just as vivid even if delivered by an unknown.
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In this way, Her is as effective a comment on the healthiest human relationships as it is on those that rope in third parties — be they of the living, automated, or greeting card variety. In fact, the movie has so many things to say that it occasionally steps on its own feet, opening up ideas so grand (and coloring them so brightly) that it sometimes has trouble capping them coherently. Admittedly, if Spike Jonze had an answer to some of the questions he's asking here, he'd probably be suspected of himself being a super-intelligent computer. But in telling the story of a man struggling to understand what it means to be in love, to an operating system or not, Jonze invites us to dissect all of the manic and trying and wonderful and terrifying and incomprehensible elements therein. Just like Samantha, Her doesn't always know what to do with all of its brilliance. But that might be part of why we're so crazy over the both of them.
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Warner Brothers via Everett Collection
There's a whole genre designed to scare the hell out of us — a genre to which we pay particular esteem on Halloween. But even with all the Friday the 13ths and Nightmare on Elm Streets and The Rings (oooh, The Ring...) out there, we still can't help but find terror in a few odd entries in other cinematic categories. Sometimes, movies that intend to make us laugh, teach us lessons, or just take us on whimsical adventures wind up giving us nightmares. Here are a few non-horrors that rattled the Hollywood.com staff in our younger years...
The Pagemaster, Jordan Smith"The Pagemaster, that little Macaulay Culkin movie that hardly anyone remembers, is supposed to be a cute action-adventure story about learning to be brave, but I'm convinced it's really a deeply evil film designed by the film industry lobby to scare kids away from libraries and books. It just doesn't make sense otherwise. There's a moment toward the beginning of the film where Culkin's character is walking around a massive library with thousands of books. All of a sudden, a freaking tidal wave of color chases him around the building. I'm talking about fierce typhoon of evil rainbows that traps him and swallows him whole. That scene scared my little four year old body to the bone. In one fell swoop, The Pagemaster made various colors, running water, libraries, and reading absolutely terrifying. Thanks Macaulay!"
The NeverEnding Story, Casey Rackham"Nope. No thank you. Not for me. I don't know how old I was when I saw The NeverEnding Story, but I know that I watched it on VHS… so I was too young to see this scarring so-called children's movie. I don't remember too much about the plot of the film, but if I'm being honest, I don't really care to. It's bad enough that I remember 'The Nothing': a threatening void of darkness that consumes everything in its path. At that point in my life, the biggest, baddest villain I had met was Cruella de Vil. She's scary, but not nearly as haunting as a black hole of evil. Next up is the 'Swamp of Sadness.' (Come on, why would you name something that?) In possibly one of the most heartbreaking scenes of my childhood, I helplessly watched as Atreyu failed to save his horse who sunk to his death in quicksand in the Swamp of Sadness. And finally, even the character Falkor, a luckdragon that was supposed to be a wise guiding light throughout the movie (and who you were supposed to love), gave me nightmares for weeks. There's just something about a creature who is half dog and half dragon, has flaring nostrils, ruby eyes, and who can 'swim' through air that isn't right. The whole movie gave me a visceral reaction, so no, I would not suggest it to anyone that doesn't want to be entirely wigged out."
Drop Dead Fred, Michael Arbeiter"It was the early '90s, an era during which I spent a lot of after school time watching movies and television with the sociopathic neighbor kids the Rosens. While their tastes usually led us to simply disgusting fare like Ren & Stimpy, we were treated one day to a video viewing of what I would later find out to be Drop Dead Fred. I made it through only one scene of the movie — that in which the title character, a ghost or an imaginary friend or something, squeezed his own head in a refrigerator door. The other kids found it hilarious... I was mortified. For years. In fact, it wasn't until over two decades later that I'd even bring myself to Google the right combination of words to find out what movie it was that enforced upon me such trauma. Not a horror at all, I learned. A kooky, weird comedy. One that I will never watch again. And, needless to say, I don't talk to the Rosens anymore."
Balto, Alexa Smail"Balto, the heroic story of a dog who saved children, right? Wrong. In my childhood, the animated Disney flick was one of the most terrifying movie experiences ever. While, now, I'm not exactly sure why it was so scary, I do remember a giant black bear with eery yellow eyes and a bunch of mean wolves who tried to hurt the sweet and cuddly Balto. There were also a bunch of avalanches, some deathly sharp icicles dropping on the animals, and all the town kids dying from a weird disease that only kills kids… Ok, so maybe I had some good reasons to be frightened, Alaska seemed pretty freaking gruesome."
The Jungle Book (live action version), Julia EmmanueleLike most children, I was obsessed with Disney films growing up. As long as a movie has animated characters and some upbeat musical numbers, I was on board. When I was about five, while looking for a new movie to rent from my local Blockbuster, I came across the 1994 live action version of The Jungle Book. I'm not sure if I thought it was actually the animated film, which I loved, or if I just assumed that this one would also be lighthearted fun involving singing bears, but I convinced my mom to rent it. Once I sat down to watch it, though, I quickly found out that actual jungle animals don’t sing Louis Prima songs, and are actually quite terrifying. It only took about 10 minutes before I began screaming and crying hysterically, presumably because I thought that the panthers were either going to kill and eat Mowgli, or come out of my television screen and attack me. There was one scene in particular, in which the panther pounces on its prey, and I threw such a fit that my mother had to come in and turn the tape off. Not only did it take me forever to calm down that day, I refused to watch Disney's Jungle Book for years afterwards because I thought that the scary panthers would be in that one too. To this day, I've never seen past the first 10 minutes of the live action Jungle Book, but I hear it's a great film.
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