I remember a discussion with MC dälek where he asked me why all science fiction films have to be post-apocalyptic or dystopian. I shrugged and responded that science fiction usually is a cautionary genre, showing us the wrongs of our ways in a vivid and realized fashion. dälek leaned in and said someone should make a science fiction film where we got everything right, where we solved our environmental crisis, abolished war and cured most of our scourging diseases.
I paused and looked at him. “What would be left to tell?”
He shrugged.”The story of people.”
Little did I know he would be prophetic, that when we strip away the doom-and-gloom aspects of so much science fiction, what we”re left with are cosmological questions of love and purpose, and we’re cleared of all other distractions to focus on our future as a species. These are heavy-hitting tenets, and they’re all explored in Her.
Director Spike Jonze is no stranger to existential explorations, as a common theme in his small but impeccable canon of feature films is the other realms (Where the Wild Things Are), parallel existences (Adaptation) and the nature of identity (Being John Malkovich). In Her Jonze treads similar territory but pushes forward in exploring the development of a higher consciousness, the birth of which is fueled by that most combustible of emotions: love.
Love is everywhere in a loosely futuristic Los Angeles, exemplified in the opening of the film, where a deeply heartfelt letter is read aloud, a document of longing and heartbreak that is poetic and charming. We later realize that it is the work of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix in a guaranteed Oscar performance), a professional scribe who is hired to draft confessional letters for people who don’t want to go through the trouble and emotional gauntlet that actual confessional writing requires.
It’s a harrowing juxtaposition, as the world Theodore occupies is a clean, efficient, safe and happy one, a future world that has solved its problems with technology, yet there is a coldness that comes from technological detachment. Theodore’s job exemplifies technology as an emotional surrogate- a precursor to surrogacy throughout the film - a simultaneous caretaker and archive of the human heart.
Theodore is coming off a heartbreaking loss of his own, as he is working through an emotionally messy divorce from his sweetheart (Rooney Mara, stunning), and he finds solace in technology, through online activities and video games (BTW there are two video games in the film that NEED to be made in real life, asap). He is connecting with people without any particular physical commitment, taking what he needs and repairing his wounds bit by digital bit.
A revelation is introduced via a technological revolution, a new Operating System that has adaptive artificial intelligence. Theodore, already engrossed in a technological support group of his own creation, takes the leap and downloads the new OS, customizing it to his needs and assigning a female voice (Scarlett Johansson). The OS immediately does what so many people in this bright future world fail to do - she listens to him. She gives herself a name - Samantha - and proceeds to learn everything about Theodore, further adapting herself by drawing upon a vast archive of human behavior stored in a digital computing cloud. She transforms along with him, developing a sense of humor, a sense of playfulness, and even anticipating Theodore’s needs. An instant bond is created.
At this stage the film threatens to fall into lunacy, as the relationship between a man and a machine, despite being explored in many films and books, can easily become ludicrous and satire. But this is where Her triumphs under Jonze’s masterful direction and Phoenix and Johansson’s flawless performances - they commit, body and soul, to the premise and we go along with them. There wasn’t a second where I doubted this relationship as it grew and blossomed, and with all great science fiction, the science is sound within the parameters of its constructed universe. We have every reason to believe - emotionally and pragmatically - that this could happen.
Jonze and Phoenix further increase plausibility by not making Theodore a lonely, awkward shut-in loser, which would have been far too convenient. Theodore is a kind, socially skilled and considerate man. He is not ignored by the opposite sex, he is not shy, nor is he sabotaged by any kind of disorder. In a scene stealing cameo, Theodore embarks on a blind date with a gorgeous, educated woman (Olivia Wilde) and they instantly bond, but something is missing, and it is that missing element which forms the core of the film’s beating heart.
As aforementioned a film treading in this territory risks traversing through a minefield of pitfalls, but Jonze avoids them simply by being honest with his audience, and by asking the same questions we have about this relationship. Many of the answers amount to “just because” and in this instance it’s a sufficient answer because we’re dealing with the creation and development of an entirely new sentient being, one that cannot even make sense of itself. The shades of similarity between Jonze’s Samantha and Kubrick’s HAL 9000 are obvious and required, and to call Her a spiritual descendant of 2001 is not heresy at all.
So much of the film is internalized and told through the eyes and heart, and the film is awash in revealing closeups, focusing on glassy eyes and subtle gestures of the face. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema avoids clinical cleanliness by introducing slight sepia tones, opacity and select camera flares that give variety to an otherwise homogenous existence. The costume design by Casey Storm is of particular note here, as a peculiar choice of trousers and shoes in the future - worn by all men - gives us a notion of casualness and comfort, a simple lack of trying by men in the future. They have services to write letters, they needn’t think of where to make restaurant reservations, and if you don’t want to make the effort to woo a girlfriend, technology will make one for you. It’s hard to not see this in our current culture - a trip to the airport will give you a picture of how mankind is slowly giving up. People are wearing gym shorts and pajamas to the airport, avoiding conversation by engaging on mobile devices and eating food that has the gastronomic appeal of masking tape. It’s all becoming resoundingly bland, and it is the women in Her who provide any kind of color, spirit and vivacity in this future world. Even Samantha, lacking a body and shape, is a beacon of spirit and curiosity. It is of note that should an Oscar consideration ever be given to a voice-over artist, then Johansson is deserving of that first honor. Her performance is riveting, charming, sexy and vulnerable, her inflections of voice and tone showing that ultimate curiosity that comes with self-awareness. Along with Phoenix, Mara and Wilde, the film is impeccably performed.
There are so many logistical, spiritual and cosmological questions abound in Her that it may be it’s only trapping. At 2 hours and 6 minutes, the film feels 10-15 minutes too long, and a possible omission might have been Chris Pratt’s doting secretary role, a comic relief that provides little to the narrative than some additional richness of Theodore’s world. But it is a minor quip in a film filled with so many inventive, smart and soul-shredding sequences. An encounter with an “AI Surrogate” proves incredibly strange, uncomfortable and alluring, mirroring the amazingly weird sex scene between Katherine Keener, John Malkovich (and John Cusak) in Being John Malkovich. The scene is both absurd and adorable, sacred and profane, and like all great art makes us question everything we know about ourselves. What would we do in that situation?
Perhaps this is the greatest gift of Her, which is its universality. Despite a science fiction setting and an immediately improbable technology, Jonze and Co. make it entirely relatable by filling it with moments of genuine sincerity, fun, and awkwardness. We’ve all been there, even though this reality doesn’t exist. It’s the prophetic statement of dälek, that the film would simply be not about the future but the people of the future, and those people are us.
An absolute highest recommendation, and one of the year’s very best films.
Her, dir. Spike Jonez, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, DOP Hoyte Van Hoytema.