On face value, the thought of someone falling in love with their computer seems stupid, but if you take the time to consider the context it doesn’t seem that detached from reality. Think of how some aficionados queue up all night in freezing conditions simply to have the next iteration of technology which happens to have a fruit etched upon it. Think of those hordes of exhausted commuters umbilically linked to their socially augmented devices, or the many hundreds of hours a month you spend in front of a humming hard drive, for business or pleasure. The prospect of a potential cybernetic union is the central premise of Spike Jonze’s new film Her, rushed into cinemas just in time for last weeks Valentine’s Day, in an effort for some kind of alleged (and unfairly characterised) hipster romance counter-programming to the usual Rom-Com dreck which pollutes February’s screens, usually starring someone from Friends or Katherine Heigl. Now, for various reasons I’ve been programmed to have zero interest in romantic entanglements so I tend to approach these movies with a bemused scientific detachment, intrigued at the unusual behaviour and illogical affairs of the heart, so it’s a very rare occurrence when such material penetrates my firewalls and ignites any sense of empathic connectivity, any emotional reaction echoing the sun-kissed pangs of a flush cheeked first love. Then again maybe I fell more for a brilliantly realised future world, the most plausible and fascinating glimpse into our shared future I’ve seen on-screen for many a year, think of the near-futurism of Robot & Frank or Minority Report hybridised with the quirky affectations of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and you’re halfway there…….
15 minutes into the future, Los Angeles, and we are introduced to Theodore Twombly (a subdued Joaquin Phoenix), a quiet, reserved young man who works as a letter writing intermediary in some pastel hued start-up. Theodore is in the final throes of an exceptionally painful divorce to his childhood sweetheart Catherine (a porcelain Rooney Mara), briefly glimpsed flashbacks detailing their genuine love for each other slowly eroded by his reserved inability to articulate his emotions, to make a lasting and bonding connection. In this world computers have become even more ingrained into our society and civilisation, organically subsumed into the fabric and environments of society and culture, with a new iteration of self-aware Artificial Intelligences released on the market in order to aid in the organisation and functional efficiency of our lives. Theodore boots up a new OS voiced with the Bronx-born purr of Scarlett Johansson, she self-christening herself as Samantha as an affectionate bond grows between the physical and digital, an organic ardour which initial stretches credulity but gradually becomes convincing. Theodore’s friends such as his best mate Amy (Amy Adams) face the irrevocable difficulties of meat-space binary compositions, remarking that relationships are a form of ‘socially conformed insanity’, but both Samantha and Theodore evade the central hurdle of their algorithmic dalliance, enjoying the first pangs of true love without necessarily facing up to intrinsic reality….
I think the first thing to say about Her is simply how fearless the film is, and the skill with which it takes its implausibly ridiculous premise and makes it not only believable and genuine, but moving and affecting displays a new-found maturity and skill from Spike Jonze’s imagination. Whilst it neutrons fire through the usual rom-com code it feels fresh, even as the ‘best friend down the hall with her own romantic complications’ act as a greek chorus to the central romance, as the first flushes of initial romance are expressed through some giddy dates on the beach and at the fair. It’s fearless in tackling head-on the rather sticky subject of consummation of the romance, it handles the intimacy question quickly and deftly so the film can get long with its real manifesto, of examining how we may interact and grow with our technology in the years to come, and the restraints inherent of the bonding of any two entities. Phoenix is an abrupt 180 degree turn from his recent volcanic performances, a slightly meek, withdrawn but affectionate man, and not in any way the creepy nerd which the film’s premise immediately conjures. Similarly Johansson exclaims a fully realised character simply through her voice, it was a crucial last-minute re-casting decision, as previously Jonze had cast the similarly lovely Samantha Morton in the role but for some reason realised that her affectations and the emotional timbre of her voice simply wasn’t working in the editing suite. The film is shot very softly, subtly suggesting Theodore’s isolation and dislocation through reflections and framing, whilst the films Arcade Fire soundtrack thunders in the background like the distant patter of rain on windowglass.
Regardless of the film overt genre the vision of a near-future reality is simply magnificent, not just technology wise but even down to interior decoration and costume, we’re not talking silver hued jumpsuits of the 1950’s SF reality but a pastel hued lo-fi sensibility, no shiny surfaces and glassy ergonomic beauty that the current Silicon Valley denizens promulgate, but warm woods and delicate shading, the boolean seamlessly integrated into the fabric of life. I’ve always found Jonze’s films to be funny, entertaining and unusual but retaining little in genuine depth, and I think he has finally tapped an emotional core which his earlier ‘kooky’ and off-the-wall work hasn’t suggested, and it’s a film which lingers in the mind after the credits have faded as it asks a number of questions which require meditation and mediation. Her can be read in a number of ways, of accepting someone for whom they are and all their intrinsic qualities good and bad, or on a more sociological level a film about how we live now, how our tools and gadgets refract back our own humanity and emotional requirements, and crucially how these tools and advances cannot satisfy certain core requirements or at the very least are warped and refracted around such intangible concepts as ‘love’. Don’t worry, as always I’m avoiding spoilers but I think Jonze as sole screenwriter kind of wrote himself into a corner so he didn’t quite execute an ending which has the strength of the infrastructure, but he does manage to slip in a number of plutonium grade comedy moments including probably the best ‘in-world’ amusing observation which won’t make sense until you see the film – yes I’m talking about a certain context of infidelity. This is a warm, melancholy and moving film which manages to exceed its potentially ridiculous premise, of how technology can simultaneously bring us together even as it sets us apart;