By Simon Miraudo
January 14, 2014
If the romantic feelings we attribute to the heart actually exist in a pocket of the brain, might those same feelings arise in a sentient, lovelorn computer? Spike Jonze‘s hopelessly human Her – the first of his features on which he holds a sole screenwriting credit – wonders as much. Joaquin Phoenix continues his flawless run of late (dating, yes, from his fantastic, self-skewering turn in I’m Still Here) as Theodore Twombly, a lonely, failed writer who falls for Samantha, his artificially intelligent operating system, voiced with smoky charm by Scarlett Johansson. Most science fiction fables involving technology emulating and ultimately surpassing human capabilities are meant to inspire fear. And yet, Her is only scary on account of the uncanny insight it has into modern relationships. It’s a love story, as good and profound and painfully true as any I’ve ever seen.
Her takes place sometime in the near future; not so far in advance that the universe feels entirely foreign, yet far enough that windbreakers and high-waisted pants have become the look du’jour for dudes across America. (FYI, you can buy those pants. Tomorrow has arrived!) Theodore works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where the speech-struck can hire talented authors to express to their loved ones what they simply can’t. Theodore’s empty days involve him trudging to work, living in the skin of those strangers, and then heading back to his sparsely decorated home to play a fruitless-seeming videogame, ending with him phoning a sex-line for some companionship. Kristen Wiig lends her vocal chords to one of the phone sex operators, and her, erm, unique sexual peccadilloes give the flick its funniest scene.
Everything changes when Theodore purchases a new OS, his routine upended for the better. (It’s like every Apple ad suddenly came true.) After selecting a woman’s voice for the machine, the playful Samantha introduces herself, and begins organising his emails and contacts. The more she reads, the more she comes to understand him and humankind, and Samantha proves to be the most wonderful confidant. Theodore’s sentiments swiftly turn to love, and, shockingly, they’re reciprocated. Their relationship turns physical (well, as physical as a man’s relationship with a disembodied voice can be, anyway) and the screen fades to black as the two of them share one of cinema’s most intimate, loveliest sex scenes. Phoenix’s commitment to the role, as well as the airing of his little-seen sweet side, should earn him more praise than I can offer in a measly review. I’ll offer up this small token, at least: I consider him the best actor working today.
When it comes time to tell friends about his unconventional partner – particularly the mousy Amy (a disarming Amy Adams), who is similarly lonely, only from within a long-term coupling- the news is met… with universal acceptance. Hey, such is the technologically-enamoured world Theodore lives in. What this means, however, is that only he and the increasingly-intelligent Samantha (who at first mourns her lack of a body, only to outgrow any desire for one) can stand in the way of themselves. Turns out even entanglements as unconventional as this can get bogged down in the same mire as most other relationships, with hurtful words, misunderstandings, jealousy, and the inexorable march of time causing rifts where once before was only bliss.
Despite being set in Los Angeles, many of Her’s outdoor sequences were shot in Shanghai, an ingenious logistical choice: China already looks like the future, and, realistically, will have a big influence on the look of the future. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures Shanghai/LA with pristine crispness. Olivia Wilde too. She briefly appears as a blind datee of Theodore’s (and, ironically, played an algorithm romanced by a human in the less-spiritually-satisfying Tron: Legacy), seeming practically alien, completely devoid of any facial blemishes. The unglimpsed Samantha, by comparison, is more human than human, and that’s surely no coincidence. Johansson’s husky voice creaks ever so naturally, her nervous whispers and apprehensive pauses speaking volumes. She fills the film’s empty spaces. She earns co-lead status. She has complete and utter screen presence. Apologies to the fine Samantha Morton, whom Johansson replaced, but I can’t imagine a better fit. Just listen to our couple sing ‘The Moon Song’, penned by Karen O. Sigh. Johansson and Phoenix are a perfect pair.
Her is remarkably non-judgmental about the future (which has been intricately illustrated through intuitive set decoration). Theodore’s job – at first, seemingly established as a cynical glimpse at our culture’s inevitable stupification – actually gives him great satisfaction; video games are totally reasonable discussion material for dates; and though our lead struggles early on with the prospect of dating someone without a physical presence, Jonze’s picture doesn’t condescend to conclude by claiming a tangible type of relationship is automatically richer than one that exists in the ether. Samantha isn’t even technically a woman, and there’s something beautifully progressive about Theodore’s practically Cronenbergian love affair with a non-human.
Moving, melancholy, sweet, sexy, and very, very funny, I feel such fondness for Jonze’s Her, an equal to his odd, earlier masterpieces Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. All three are parables about people coming to terms with their personality and sexuality only after seeing themselves through an unexpected mirror. Her is just that too: an unexpected mirror, and we should all see ourselves better because of it. It isn’t simply the story of Samantha’s emotional evolution, but also Theodore’s, and ours. Becoming self aware: it’s not just for robots anymore.
Her arrives in Australian cinemas January 16, 2014.