Imagine, if you will: you have purchased the latest model smartphone with a swanky new interactive OS. Except this one makes the iOS Siri app seem like a horse-drawn cart to a Formula 1 race car. This is where we meet the unpromisingly monikered Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix once again proving his merit): penning personalised emotionally resonant correspondence in his work day even as his personal life seems to be in a depressive ditch. When he sees an advertisement for brand new artificially intelligent OS for his ever present set of internet connected devices he jumps at the chance to insulate himself from reality just that little bit more. What Theodore does not count on is…Her.
Given the option I think the bulk of lonely straight males would choose a female voiced artificially intelligent interface (for such a system) as Theodore does. If he’s surprised at how quickly he becomes comfortable with the foreignness of this communication, and indeed the budding relationship that ensues, then we, the audience, are even more so as Jonze deftly draws us in. I have not experienced this level of emotional resonance with any previous Spike Jonze work. As interesting and enjoyable as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, or Where the Wild Things Are are they ride, primarily, on quirky ideas more than truthful character interaction. With Her it seems Jonze realised that the very premise, not handled correctly, could endanger any engagement with character or story and turn the cinematic experience into a techno-philosophic nit picker fest. Instead he wisely decides to foreground the relationship elements of the story in a very believable way. It helps that the engaging and soothing tones of the iOS—which incidentally selects its own name ‘Samantha’ from a bunch of child naming books—is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Our learned recognition of Johansson’s voice, along with its inherently sensual nature, subconsciously helps us (the audience) to bridge the non-corporeal gap across which suspension of disbelief and real connection to character must journey. It is interesting to note that the part of Samantha during production (and hence the presence to which Phoenix responded whilst filming) was voiced by Samantha Morton. Jonze states that both he and the British actress decided during editing that the film needed a different tone and so Johansson was brought in and re-voiced the part post-filming. This decision highlights the importance of that voice to Jonze achieving his cinematic goals with Her. It works, very well. We could be forgiven for all but ignoring the philosophical hodge-podge bubbling away beneath the surface…or could we? Jonze and co confront us with issues such as the nature of human relationship, the nature of love, and indeed the very nature of personhood. Her may not expound a lot on these ideas directly but his more subtle challenge reminds me of the way Tomas Alfredson obfuscated his ‘To what degree are our motivations parasitic?’ thematics under a pre-pubescent outsider romance in excellently subversive vampire genre film Let the Right One In. The ideas explored in Her also put me in mind of the kinds of themes tracked recently in Charlie Brooker’s excellent sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror (in particular Series 2 Episode 1: Be Right Back).
With most of Theodore’s human relationships on the rocks Jonze sets up a foil in his long time friend/neighbour Amy (Amy Adams) with whom he maintains a close connection. They touch base at various points in the narrative with differing levels of intimacy; the film showing us these two human+AI vs human+human relationships developing down differing paths in parallel. Adams is her usual excellent self in this strong support role bringing a sense of history and genuine investment to their onscreen partnership, such as it is. Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt works well as an off-kilter but friendly workmate of Theodore’s whilst Rooney Mara is appropriately prickly as his ex-wife Catherine. The director even voice-cameos as a juvenile game character creature with whom Theodore has been spending his lonely nights.
Her’s setting in the very near future looks like a tidied up version of today. Crowds of people throng busy urban streets in an orderly if disconnected fashion; individuals immersed in their private device enabled world. This contrasts the dark’n’grimy post-apocalyptic or noirish settings the future often acquires in cinema (think Blade Runner, The Terminator franchise, or The Matrix trilogy). Theodore’s world is clean, bright, and moderately colourful exuding a Singaporean sense of manufactured ‘wholesomeness’. This surface gloss mirrors the veneer of connection which pervades the film shown explicitly in the nature of Theodore’s work which involves being a facsimile/stand-in facilitating relational connection for those willing to pay. But despite much smart thematic investigation it’s the believable intimacy created between Phoenix and Johansson’s disembodied voice that makes this film so gripping. I applaud Jonze for going several steps further in this film than he has in his previous work; any awards he and his collaborators pick up will have been well earned. Whether humanity gets anywhere near this point remains to be seen but there will obviously be a lot philosophical quandaries to consider along the way.
Rating: R16 Sexual content and offensive language.
. o O ( FACEBOOK | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM )