The Oscars go scifi and there's no way that I was going to miss it!
Being John Malkovich was indeed a tremendous, if slightly flawed, calling card for a new director but it was one that he had trouble truly matching. Adaptation was excellent for the first two thirds of its running time, only to unravel into irritating self-indulgence in its third act, while his kid-lit adaptation Where the Wild Things Are never quite got off the ground, despite its best intentions.
Her, however, isn't just worth the wait, it may very possibly his most coherent, most fully accomplished film to date. It may not have the boundless off-the-wall creativity of Being John Malkovich or Adaptation (both of which were written, incidentally, by Charlie Kaufman whose own creative energies seem to have been burned out on the pretentious headache that was Synechdoche, New York) but it's more focused and emotionally involving for that.
Mind you, it's not like Her has a particularly conventional premise, but its story of a lonely man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence is hardly alien to science fiction. What's really impressive though is how Jonze fully understands the allegorical and metaphorical nature of the best science fiction and has created a fable (or parable - I always confuse the two) about relationships, of very rare power. So rare, in fact, that somehow Jonze has managed to sneak one past the members of the Academy and has somehow managed to get a weird science fiction movie nominated for five Oscars, including one for best picture.
Admittedly, it probably helps that Her is so complex and so multi-layered (not to mention brilliantly put together) that it's easy to forget that you're watching a movie about a sentient computer. On one level, Her is a wry satire about the way 21st century humans are so dependent on their electronic devices, a trend that looks to only heighten in intensity as our devices get "smarter" and more multi-functional. It's a timely observation and one that is done with a fair amount of wit but on its own it's both pretty unoriginal and really rather bloody obvious.
The true genius of the film though is that rather than using the relationship between humans and machines as subtext, as so many science fictions story would, Jonze uses it as a super text from which he draws all manner of themes about humanity itself, though most specifically about human evolution (in all senses of the term) and how we relate to ourselves and to others.
Her isn't really a film about the love between a man and his computer but is a story about a man trying to come to terms with his own emotions and a woman who is literally rapidly evolving out of his orbit. It's a story about a relationship struggling to survive the increasingly expanding gulf between two people who may be in love but whose love may never be able to transcend their differences. And it's ultimately a story about two people still trying to figure themselves out, while simultaneously trying to relate to one another,
These are complicated themes dealing with infinitely more complicated human emotions and thought processes but the film never gets away from itself. Its characters are fully fleshed out, even when they have no flesh to speak of, as both Joaquin Phoenix and (the voice of) Scarlett Johansson bring well rounded humanity to two central characters who could so easily have become intensely irritating or one-dimensional with the wrong reading. Also on hand are Amy Adams and Chris Pratt to provide much needed warmth and humour respectively.
The film flits between melancholy and whimsy (only occasionally tipping over into cloying self-indulgence, which is the only thing keeping me from giving it a perfect score) and is paced leisurely enough to allow both the film's emotions and its complex themes to sink in. It also makes full use of its semi-futuristic landscapes and moody pop and chamber music to create a film with its own very distinct look and feel. The whole thing results in what is actually a brilliant companion piece to Charlie Kaufman's own scifi romance, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - even if its not quite as perfect as that particular masterpiece.
Still, though it may rub some people the wrong way - some critics have even found it emotionally distant - I couldn't recommend Her enough. And, for what its worth, though I still need to see Philomena and Nebraska, Her is second only to 12 Years a Slave as this year's Best Picture nominee - and Her is a damn sight more watchable.