The 2014 Oscar Nominations were announced earlier today, and though Her snagged both a Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nod, there was no such honor in the cards for the film’s star, Joaquin Phoenix, or his co-star, Scarlett Johansson.
The latter isn’t particularly surprisingly, given the fact that acting is supposed to be at least half physical. Tough to do when you don’t have a body or hell, are even providing mo-cap like Andy Serkis. Still though, I agree with David that Johansson’s work as the AI Samantha in the film was sublime, perhaps even better than Phoenix.
But with that said, I found myself troubled after watching Her, realizing that despite being the film’s best asset, Scarlett Johnasson’s Samantha was also one of the movie’s biggest problems.
The entire film is about a man’s ability to have a relationship with a virtual construct. An inhuman AI that while intelligent, has no form and is in essence, not a real person. One of the main issues with their relationship presented in the film is Samantha’s complete lack of a physical body, something that troubles her and makes Theodore’s relationship with her more complicated than most.
But Her presents a fairly unique circumstance for the “voice acting” it requires of Scarlett Johansson. Big name actors doing voicework when they are themselves unseen happens all the time, namely in animated movies looking to use the talents and names of big name stars to draw in an audience.
It’s different in this case, however. In those films, even if the actor themselves isn’t seen, some representation of them is , be they a toy cowboy or cartoon caveman. Though you might hear Tom Hanks or Nicolas Cage if you’re trying to, eventually, your mind and body adjust, and you simply see Woody and Papa Crood, in this case.
The effect is far stranger when you hear a voice your recognize and it’s not assigned to a physical body, in any form. Though Samantha could be considered a phone or a PC or an earpiece, she jumps around between all of those, and you never have one physical object assigned to her. And since you know Scarlett Johansson is in the movie, and can recognize her voice, the image you see in your mind’s eye every time Samantha talks is the gorgeous actress.
To me, this sort of defeats the prime purpose of the movie. Had Johansson been replaced with a lesser known actress with a less distinct voice, or perhaps one whose identity was even kept hidden in the marketing for the film, we would have been in the same boat as Theodore. We would have had literally no one to associate with Samantha, and we’d have to be charmed by her bodiless form just as he was. The fact that the audience falls in love with Samantha while seeing Scarlett Johansson in their heads is kind of cheating, and I feel like it could have been a more interesting experience without that constant point of reference.
That said, I’m probably just being dumb, as such a move probably would have resulted in a lesser performance than what we saw from Johansson. The desired effect may have worked, but the movie would probably be worse without Johansson’s (non) presence.
Anyway, I’m curious to see if anyone else thought about this as well as they were watching. Let me know.