US (2013) Dir. Spike Jonez
With much of modern Hollywood’s films holding little appeal for me I find myself keep a safe distance from them, but occasionally one hears so much praise for a film that eventually something – usually my curiosity – has to give. This is the case with Her.
The story is set in the near future where man and technology are very much connected far more deeply and intimately than before. Introverted professional letter writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is in the middle of divorcing his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and is finding it hard to move on. He purchases a new speaking artificial intelligence operating system which has a female voice that names itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Almost immediately Samantha pays dividends in cheering Theodore up and in organising his life but over time this interaction leads to a deeper connection with man and computer finding themselves falling love with each other.
I have to confess I don’t know much about Spike Jonez other than the Fatboy Slim video he directed with the avant garde dancers performing outside a cinema. Since that quirky side of modern art doesn’t appeal to me I had reservations about viewing this film, having not seen any of his previous works and naturally fearing the worst.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find that Her wasn’t the oddball mess I feared it would be, instead it was quite an intelligent take on the much covered topic of the relationship between man and technology. With this concept dating back to the days of Isaac Asimov and his classic story I Robot, Jonez has the benefit of living in a technological age where the possibilities are easier to explore and make more believable as the lines are continually crossed on a daily basis.
We may not have reached the point where any intimate physical activities can take place between humans and technology based interfaces (unless some pervert in Japan has created a shaggable computer) but Jonez comes close with his ideas of having a computer that is capable of simulating and enjoying the experience on an emotional level that makes it feel real. And we find ourselves believing it too even though this notion is somewhat incredulous.
It’s perhaps a bit of a cliché that Theodore is a bit on the nerdy side – glasses, moustache, boring clothes, sensitive, surrounded by and dependant on technology and currently emotionally vulnerable – making the development of his love affair with Samantha a tad predictable. But, later on in the film it is revealed that other people have done the same thing as Theodore – one woman is having an affair with someone else’s OS – so he’s not alone.
Samantha basically represents the ideal of a perfect woman for Theodore, being his confidante and support system. While it is acknowledged that OS’s are constantly evolving it is left a little ambiguous as to whether Samantha’s feelings are part of her programming or an aberration. But as the relationship deepens it becomes – or feels – all the more real to the point that Samantha instigates the use of a surrogate named Isabelle (Portia Doubleday) to complete the illusion and make physical intimacy a reality while Samantha controls the mood via an earpiece and mini-camera.
And thus we come to the crux of Her, the exploration of relationships and whether non-physical barriers are really an issue in true love. In contrast to how well he gets on with technological escapism, Theodore has a failed marriage to his name while his seemingly happy friends, ex-college flame Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher), split up. Theodore’s bond and indeed love for Samantha is as real as it possibly could be although ex-wife Catherine is appalled to learn of this, telling Theodore that he is unable to experience real emotions. Jonez appear to be questioning whether Theodore is wrong to accept love in whatever form he can find it if it makes him happy while also sharing the concerns about the reality of the situation.
Instead of making this a warning of our increasing dependency on technology and its continual overlapping into the human world as it develops beyond its virtual state, this unusual love story makes us think about it rather than judge. There is no fear mongering just the question of possibilities, leaving the question of dominance between man vs machine lingering in our minds. It gives us plenty of food for thought and forces us to hold a mirror up to ourselves and how we conduct ourselves in relationships, asking us to admit if we are more attached to a screen name from across the world than the person physically sitting next to us in a room.
With the artistic background Jonez clearly has, this is a film resplendent with interesting and eye catching visuals to enhance the varying moods experienced through its 125 minute run. However its key focus point is the chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. I’ve never been a fan of either but Phoenix brings an earthiness and pathos to the character of Theodore that makes his plight easy to support. He also deserves credit for being able to emote so well while to a co-star who is not onscreen. Again I must applaud Johansson for making Samantha feel like a living breathing person despite being a voice only, the subtle nuances of her delivery bringing out the humanity from this computer.
I am pleased that Her exceeded my low expectations although, for me, it was slightly marred by being a “typical” US indie flick with too much unnecessary profanity to make what was such a tender love story seem edgy. Also a lot of the cast, especially Phoenix were prone to mumbling too often which was irritating.
Overall, maybe not a film of the year candidate for me but a pleasant surprise nonetheless and one I can see the merits of as awarded by others.