Have you been to a coffee shop recently? If so you may well have become accustomed to the sight of people who’ve ostensibly gone there to socialise sitting in silence, staring down at their phones. The allure of technology trouncing that of actual human interaction is evident in the world we live in now, and writer-director Spike Jonze is ready to take this to the next level. Yes, Her is a film about a man who falls in love with his phone, but it’s also so much more than that off-putting concept might sound.
It does seem more relevant now than ever before, but humans emotionally interacting with machines, and indeed machines being self-aware, are decades-old ideas in science-fiction. Jonez totally makes it his own with Her though, and rarely ever feels to be re-treading old ground.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man named Theodore Twombly, he’s lonely, introverted, and recently separated from his wife (Rooney Mara). He works for a website called BeautifullyWrittenLetters.com, where he ironically writes love letters for other people who are too busy/unimaginative to do so themselves. At home he plays futuristic video games that project themselves over large portions of his living room. He’s not the typical shut-in character type, he has friends, including a neighbour played by Amy Adams with whom he has a sibling-like relationship, but he doesn’t feel like a particularly original creation either. That’s not to say a word against Phoenix’s incredibly subtle performance, which Jonze’s camera often lingers on in long close ups.
The world Theodore inhabits though, is wonderfully realised, a combination of Shanghai and Los Angeles shoots make for a believable image of the future L.A. Everything from the architecture, to the strange fashions (many bright colours yet none seem to stand out) and the technology (constantly present but less and less visible) contribute to an unusual look at what the future might hold, all strengthened by a strange, warm hue Jonze brings to the imagery.
One day, Theodore decides to install a new, state-of-the-art operating system, and upon being asked whether he wants a male of female voice, pauses just for a moment before stating ‘female’, and with that, his relationship with ‘Samantha’ begins. It’s a concept that could just come across as laughable, both to the audience and the other characters in the film. The in-world reactions to it cover all the bases though, some characters embrace the idea, some find it odd but are open-minded, and others find it appalling. As Samantha learns more, her and Theodore’s bond increases, and their relationship is really quite convincing in the directions it takes.
Samantha’s vocals are provided by an unseen Scarlett Johansson, whose seductive tones enhance their interactions. I’m not really sure if this is a complaint or not, but Samantha always sounds like a person, and never feels like a machine. The notion that she’s programmed to serve him may seem problematic, but is addressed in the film, which tries to remind us that she doesn’t just ‘do what he tells her to’ (although she still does in many capacities).
Jonze’s former writer Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind bears some similarities to Her, but while that just took a science-fiction idea and used it as a means to explore human interaction, Her, without losing the emotional component, sticks with sci-fi all the way. It explores virtually every aspect of its idea that you could think of, not just the inevitable question of how they could be physical, though it even has fascinating ideas there. Come the unforeseen turn the film takes toward the end, you’ll know this is no gimmick. Her manages to take a high concept seriously and explore it all the ways you could imagine, and a few more you probably couldn’t.