We all harbour deep-seeded fears of being alone. Whether we wear that fear on our sleeve, or it only rears its head in our darkest moments, it exists in all of us. As our dependence on technology grows, we’ve attempted to break down barriers of communication. For the most part, we’ve succeeded. However, as we’ve broken down boundaries, we’ve also put up walls that masquerade as frank vulnerability. Through Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Plenty of Fish, and on and on, we’ve made it so that we can tell someone everything about ourselves while revealing nothing about who we really are. Spike Jonze’s Her inadvertently sheds light on our technologically induced loneliness, while giving us a wonderfully human love story between a man and his operating system.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a professional letter writer. In the not-too-distant-future L.A., an age where everyone speaks to their computers, he makes a living dictating letters for people. Fabricating an existence for others, he’s struggling to create his own reality. Following a presumably messy divorce, he’s found connecting with others difficult. Enlisting the help of a new operating system, he not only begins to organize his life, but finds himself with a new friend: Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). His new intuitive and sentient operating system learns fast, developing a personality and a sense of humour. A friendship quickly flourishes, and from that, a significant romance.
Originally inspired by an interaction Jonze had with an artificial intelligence bot, the film was always intended to be a romance. Jonze bantered back and forth with the computer program, and while its answers originally seemed intuitive, its patterns quickly became evident. Jonze was inspired, and started thinking up ways that someone might interact with sentient technology. And thus the concept for Her was born. A love story between a man and his highly intuitive computer software, to put it simply.
At just over two hours, you’d expect a romantic dramedy to run long. Quite the opposite. Every moment of the film breathes new life into the next. Each scene is beautifully calculated, every pause given a purpose. It’s elegantly written, and perfectly paced.
Joaquin Phoenix gives a wonderful performance as Theodore. He’s a complex man unaware of how to process his own thoughts, but adept at interpreting the emotions of others. His is the most poignant performance of the film, as he dominates most of the screen time.
Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha is surprisingly wonderful. Like Samantha Morton as Hattie in Sweet and Lowdown, she does wonders with limitations. Morton managed to snag an Oscar nod for her performance with nary a word spoken. She emoted beautifully through the subtlety of her body language and facial expressions. She was captivating.
Johansson shares no actual screen time with her leading man. All we have of her is her voice. Yet through that voice, we could see her in bed next to Theodore. We can watch her brush the hair from his forehead, see her lying with him in the sand at the beach, and can catch her running along side him on the boardwalk. In spite of her lack of corporeality, Johansson offers a significant presence in the film.
Rooney Mara as Theodore’s ex wife, Catherine, and Amy Adams as his best friend, Amy, are unfortunately underused. Mara is simultaneously scathing and wounded. She commands the screen, and hits with brute force.
Adams’ Amy is a beacon of hope in Theodore’s life. His lifeboat tethering him back to reality, she’s a well of positivity in spite of her own obstacles. As she’s been proving with her more recent roles, Adams is a remarkable talent. In her minimal part she delivers a subtly heartbreaking performance.
In spite of Jonze’s plan for the film, he’s created an incredibly provocative subtext on our dependence on technology. The warm tone of the cinematography, and the warmth of Johansson’s voice, emphasizes the synthetic comfort of a digital existence. We’re in a place where we’re increasingly alone the more we digitize our lives. We hover through a haze of isolation pretending we’re interacting with the world when, ultimately, we’re playing with imaginary friends. Social networking and the increasing democratization of the internet has made us into vessels for personalities, rather than allowed us to be human beings.
“I wish somebody would love me like that,” says Theodore’s colleague, Paul (Chris Pratt), of a letter he’s just written on behalf of someone else. He, like so many others, is in love with a fantasy. It poses a frightening question; are we losing our ability to relate in reality?
Accepting the truth can be an incredibly painful experience. In spite of the very genuine emotions Theodore comes to feel for Samantha, in many ways she’s a means for him to avoid facing the pain of his divorce. “You always wanted to have a wife,” Catherine pierces, “without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real.” As the film progresses, this line grows in significance. It isn’t until the end of the film that we see him properly interacting with someone he cares about, someone equally as lost as him.
Everything about Her is magical. From the cinematography, to the soundtrack, the casting and the set design. This not-too-distant future is a potentially wonderful world. Without a doubt, Her is one of the best films of the year. Touching, funny, and poignant, it forces us to redefine romance, and to put our habits and ourselves under the microscope. Without intending to, Jonze has created a timely and poignant look at technology and the shifting notion of love in a digital age.