Speaking as someone who's followed Scarlett Johansson's career with interest for many years :-) I've noticed that her performances have never troubled the Academy judges, although she's picked up a few Golden Globes along the way. Natalie Portman managed to squeeze in an Oscar before she squeezed out her first baby. Perhaps Johansson hoped for the same with her performance in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, completed before her own first child, but it didn't happen. In truth, most of the time she seems to have been happy to take the pay cheques for the blockbusters. The few smaller films she's done recently have twice been vanity projects for the director (Jon Favreau's Chef and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon). But there's also this one, Spike Jonze's Chef, where Johansson plays the voice of an intelligent Operating System (OS) who has a relationship with a human, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix).
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Her works best as a satire on current society. The sight of a street full of people walking along, talking to their phones, doesn't seem so far away from people's current obsession with smart phones, and the bespoke letter writing service that Theadore works for, his virtual reality games and his late night cybersex with strangers all seem a baby step away from current technology and social trends. No one seems to wear belts in this society, so there's another prediction that Her will live or die by in future decades.
Review continues below...
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The minimal questions asked by the computer when Theodore sets up his OS are a real highlight of the film. Once the sex is decided as a woman, the only question that is needed is what is your relationship like with your mother? And even then, the computer doesn't need to hear the whole answer. The idea that a man's ideal computer helpmate can be defined from this question is a little piece of genius and no doubt explains why the two of the them subsequently get on so well.
Another nice touch is that an AI alien character in one of Theodore's virtual reality computer games (played with gusto by Spike Jonze himself) hears the conversation outside of the game and starts joining in with it. And it's good detail that – after we're told that Theodore uses internet pornography – one of his fantasies involves a pregnant celebrity, a detail so random it I'd gladly bet my mortgage that it reflects the real-life fetish interest of one of the writers or the director. (It does perhaps tie back to the mother OS set-up question and forward to the inevitably childless nature of a relationship with an OS, a point which is otherwise never mentioned.)
There are a few ropey moments of the kind that seem to creep into even the most carefully written Sci-fi. For example, Theodore feels the need to explain to 'Samantha' (the name of his OS) who his ex-wife is, even though she would undoubtedly have already known this from his divorce proceedings. The cybersex he has early on with a late night stranger turns unnecessarily surreal with his partner insisting on bringing in choking with a dead cat into the fantasy. (As though we'd hate Theodore too much if we saw him enjoying the encounter.) I wasn't really convinced by the surrogate – a stranger who Samantha enlists to act out her relationship with Theodore with a real human body.
Personal Score: 6/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.