Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch next if you like Spike Jonze’s Her.
It may not have cracked the top ten this weekend after finally entering wide release, and it probably will be left empty-handed at the Golden Globes tonight, but Spike Jonze’s Her is one of the best movies of last year (it was #4 on FSR’s aggregated top ten, #3 on resident critic Rob Hunter’s list, #2 on our best sci-fi list…) and if you haven’t seen it already, you must go out as soon as you can and fall in love with this movie about love.
If you don’t already know from our coverage and praise, the futurist sci-fi film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man recently separated from his wife who rebounds with his computer’s sentient operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. That plot has reminded me of other movies since I first heard about it, and I’ve continued to recall related recommendations before, during and after seeing it. It’s not necessarily derivative so much as the next step for cinema that deals with the idea of love as a concept, what it means to be in love and how much it’s in our heads as opposed to heart and how much is really a mutual experience.
This week’s list of movies to watch mostly involves those same themes, though not all. As usual, some come from connections made by others. I’ve decided to leave out one particular movie, WarGames, as it’s not about love and I already highlighted it in relation to Her in the special year-end edition of this column last month. Let me know if there are any other necessary recommended titles I’ve forgotten.
Electric Dreams (1984)
The movie that immediately came to mind when I saw the first trailer for Her last fall. It’s fairly obscure, so I kinda thought Jonze had made an unofficial remake of sorts. But it’s really not that similar. Her has a guy fall in love with his new computer’s AI operating system.
Electric Dreams is about a guy (Lenny von Dohlen) who competes with his new computer’s AI operating system (voiced by Bud Court) for the love of their neighbor (Virginia Madsen). It was a favorite of mine growing up and looking back it was clearly very visionary. It’s also one of the most awesomely 80s movies from the 80s there is, especially during the end credits.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Once I actually saw Her, I realized Jonze has instead made an unofficial remake of this movie by Michel Gondry. Well, not really, but it sure feels like it. Eternal Sunshine does explore what love is in our minds, and the female love interest (Kate Winslet) is mostly seen as only an impression of a real person within the memories of the main character (Jim Carrey). This was written by Charlie Kaufman, who also scripted Jonze’s first movie, Being John Malkovich (another movie Her reminds us of, partly because of the tone and partly because of Amy Adams’s hair). Gondry hooked up with Kaufman initially because Jonze wasn’t interested in doing Human Nature. Now Jonze is seemingly using their collaboration as a jumping off point to his new film. It’s perfectly cyclical.
Lost In Translation (2003)
I would have never thought of this one, probably because I rarely think of it at all (didn’t love it back then, and haven’t seen it since, though I really should). HuffPo’s Mike Ryan, inspired by a profile of Jonze by Mark Harris, wrote a great piece about how Her is an unofficial sequel to Lost In Translation, which was written and directed by Jonze’s ex-wife, Sofia Coppola. In a slightly autobiographical sense, they each implicitly address that marriage from either side. “Her and Lost In Translation would make an excellent and quite beautiful double feature,” Ryan writes. “It would almost act as a real version of a movie like He Said, She Said, only without the shtick and with two directors working at the top of their game.” I also recommend He Said, She Said, but not so much in connection with Her. It’s just a neat, underrated experiment that was astonishingly allowed to be made at a studio.
Available on iTunes
This and Eternal Sunshine were two of my three favorite films of 2004 (Shaun of the Dead was the other), and interestingly enough all three were the best, most cerebrally deconstructive films dealing with the concept of love and relationships I’d ever seen. Probably still to this day. Birth is the story of a widow (Nicole Kidman) who is visited one day by a little boy (Cameron Bright) claiming to be her dead husband reincarnated. He knows everything the man knew about everything regarding their relationship. She accepts that it’s the truth. What transpires is one of the most brilliantly laugh-less dark comedies ever made. And it sure as hell will make you wonder what kind of test to use if the same thing happened to you, which means it’ll make you wonder how exactly you define what your love for and with someone. Such an under-appreciated modern masterpiece. And Danny Huston is so, so good.
Available on DVD
Ruby Sparks (2012)
One movie that didn’t make this list is Weird Science. I do have a fondness for that 1986 John Hughes comedy, in which a couple teens create a dream girl on and with their computer. It might have been like Her were it not for the creation materializing in the form of Kelly LeBrock. Better, and almost a redo, is this romantic comedy cleverly written by its young star, Zoe Kazan. Paul Dano plays the male protagonist this time, and his unreal love interest is a character he wrote. She also materializes somehow, which makes her both more ideal and less ideal for the superficial man than a sexy voice on a computer.
We can include the spin-off reality series that came after this documentary about a young man (Nev Schulman) who falls in love with a girl he meets on Facebook and later maintains a bit of a relationship with her via phone. All he knows is some pictures and a voice, but it’s the real thing. Except maybe it’s not? I guess it doesn’t matter if I spoil what happens – the pictures turn out to be stolen and the voice is that of a woman who makes up people on social media – because it’s become the whole point of the MTV show. Her is not that far off when you observe how many people get into serious relationships with what might as well be a program inside their laptop.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
But we knew all that way back in the ’90s, right? As soon as people could meet and fall in love with a stranger online, it was potentially a romantic disaster. It happened to the best of my generation. Many of us traveled great distances to find out that love is about more than what we get from people through emails, chats, IMs, selfies and maybe eventually phone calls. Nowadays it seems like it could be easier to fix those issues through Skype and other applications that make us ever more close in spite of being ever so distant. Anyway, You’ve Got Mail took an old play (Parfumeriie, which was also made into the old movie The Shop Around the Corner) and updated it to deal with the new phenomenon of Internet dating/romance. Fortunately for the case of the leads in this movie, they wound up actually being perfect for each other, but for a while there is that tension in the fact that they’re also unknowingly real-life business nemeses. That fact does go to show how much can be hidden in the act of falling in love through or with a computer.
Stairway to Heaven (aka A Matter of Life and Death, 1946)
Before You’ve Got Mail, stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan also had a relevant situation in Sleepless in Seattle, where Ryan’s character fell for Hanks’s voice on the radio. Almost 50 years before that, though, there was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s fantasy romance film about a WWII pilot (David Niven) who cheats death when his plane goes down. Just before the crash, he communicates with a woman (Kim Hunter) on the other end of his radio, and they fall in love in a matter of minutes only having heard each other’s voice. Maybe there’s another movie that came before this involving love at first hear, but I’m unaware of it. Besides, this movie is a must see for its cinematographic experiment of alternating between color and black and white, whether the scene is on Earth or in Heaven.
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
I keep thinking of this adorable movie as a sort of inverse of Her, because it’s about a guy (Ryan Gosling) who falls in love with a sex doll. The opposite of Joaquin Phoenix’ operating system, here the love interest is just a body, no voice – although the guy seems to hear her saying things and has conversations with her.
Available on iTunes
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Of course, then there’s this seemingly forgotten Woody Allen movie, which is sort of a remake of Fellini’s La Strada. In that film and this one, the female lead is a mute. A body, no voice. Interestingly enough, the woman is played by Samantha Morton, who was the original voice of the operating system (also called “Samantha”) in Her. I wish she still was. It would be so amazing to watch the two movies as a double feature, first her exceptional physical performance then what I imagine was (even if it was deemed not right) and exceptional vocal performance.
Available on DVD
Way back when he was in this movie, Joaquin Phoenix went by the stage name Leaf Phoenix. That’s not important. The relevant matter is that this was the first time the actor got to play a character who is really close with an artificially intelligent computer – well, robot. I really do wonder if Phoenix recalled his experience working with the disembodied voice of Frank Welker (as Jinx) to help him get into character for Her. Max and Jinx. Friends. For. Ever.
Available on DVD
I’m Here (A Robot Love Story) (2010)
Her isn’t the first film that Spike Jonze made in which AIs fall in love with each other. In this magical, bittersweet half-hour short, the AIs have bodies, robotic kinds, one of them with a computer tower for a head, and the voices of Andrew Garfield and Sienna Guillory. Like many of the films on this list, here the male character very literally helps to make the female character who she is. But it is different, quite physical in the creation. It’s unofficially based on Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, so if you’re familiar with that sad children’s book, you’ll know how this one goes, too. Not to be confused with I’m Still Here, which stars Joaquin Phoenix and is not really that relevant besides that.