Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson (voice)
Yet another film title that you cannot innocently Google, unless you make sure to flank it with “Spike Jonze” and “2013”. Which incidentally is something I suggest you should do if you have not heard of “Her”. “Her” is ostensibly a romance film, but it asks a number of questions not necessarily exclusive to issues of love and lust. You need not be a romance film junkie to enjoy “Her”, but it frequently compels you to at least consider the extent of human dependence and co-dependence upon real people and artificially engineered people. It’s an imperfect, fun, gentle film about loneliness, the need (or not) for human connection, and the universality of love. Be prepared, however, to think about the walls of reality and perception (though in a far less intense manner than Total Recall).
Retro-futurism: time and technology progressing forward but human beings dressing their bodies, homes and places of work in efficient but nuanced, considered ways with hints of vintage thrown in. These people of Spike Jonze’s near-future Los Angeles adhere to this way of life, but their society includes a growing number of people who approach familiar relationship issues in strange, alternative ways (compared to our present day proclivities). Enter Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), whose impending divorce inundates him with sadness. “Her” follows Theodore as the physical act of signing the divorce papers looms on the horizon, is agonisingly completed at an arranged restaurant dinner with his childhood love (Rooney Mara) and then instantly becomes part of the past. Some might say what Theodore needs is a therapist. He instead acquires a new operating system.
OS1 (or Scarlett Johansson voicing “Samantha”, when Theodore asks for a female user interface during the installation process) has been designed to speak, interact and evolve like a human being. Surely Theodore will reap the benefits of companionship combined with the millions-of-calculations-per-second efficiency of hands-free (more on this later) technology? Theodore and Samantha’s relationship begins innocently enough, reminding you of taking your own new computer out of its box and discovering its clever features. Few moments in “Her” (outside of the organic-living-with-synthetic concepts) feel unnatural for their own sake, but Phoenix’s delivery of “You know me so well!” during the installation process just does not land.
The disembodied voice is part and parcel of the animated film industry, but it’s a refreshing notion in the romance genre. Theodore, predictably, becomes lustful towards Samantha. Comprehending Theodore’s falling for Samantha requires a leap of imaginative faith, but the structural nature of their relationship never becomes a detracting obstacle. Except for a brief experiment with a sexual body-double for Samantha, Theodore is in reality the only physical entity of this relationship. Naturally the camera stays on Theodore for the vast majority of the time since he converses out loud with the disembodied Samantha, while ‘holding’ her in his shirt pocket PDA and listening to her through his hands-free earpiece. Phoenix’s performance is mostly solid throughout, despite perhaps repeatedly wearing the same smile during softly-lit seen-everywhere-before flashback scenes with his ex-wife. Talking of hands-free, Theodore and Samantha’s first sex (a black fade out to their mutual masturbation) is infinitely less smutty (but also less funny) than Billy Everyteen and Marilyn Monrobot “performing the reproductive act” in the ‘I Dated a Robot’ episode of Futurama.
“Her” delivers the usual checklist of romance film tropes but shoehorned, they are not. A clever example on Jonze’s part sees the spinning-your-lover-around-by-the-arms camera shot re-imagined when Theodore and Samantha go to the fair, except with Theodore twirling Samantha (his pocket PDA) at arm’s length. This moment serves as an insight into the normative description of love in “Her”. Theodore’s ex-wife, as is her rather one-note way, is the contemporary voice of revulsion toward Theodore’s romance with Samantha. Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s friend is the counterbalancing voice of sad acceptance through experience – when he asks her if he’s a freak, she thoughtfully explains “I think anyone who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.”
This retro-futuristic Los Angeles is a macro example of the spectrum of changing attitudes towards organic-synthetic relationships. Moreover Jonze, Phoenix and Johansson display between them few faults when it comes to delivering genuinely guttural feelings concerning relationship issues throughout the course of “Her”. Samantha’s eventual reveal of self-diagnosed further evolution, and subsequent departure, of the city’s thousands of companion operating system thus hits very hard. It’s a distinct allegory for love; people everywhere are plugged into this network, and its shutdown impacts upon all concerned, chiefly Theodore. Does the fact that Theodore falls for and experiences human emotions towards an artificially engineered person make his experiences any less valid? “Her” affirms no, Theodore’s experiences are valid – yours are too. Reality, be it in the form of love or home or work, is what you make of what you find in front of you.
One last piece of advice: don’t date robots!