Romantic drama inside a colourful science-fiction framework puts its finger on the reasons why people stay together and/or grow apart.
Director of Photography:
Hoyte van Hoytema
Running time: 125 minutes
It can be a constant battle for those in a relationship to remain together even as the two individuals grow in their own direction. Whatever sparked that initial euphoria may soon become nothing but a memory of two people meeting each other at a point in their lives that now seems vastly different from where they find themselves today.
This is but one very astute insight from Spike Jonze’s romantic drama Her, one of the most perceptive films about people and relationships since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry’s work of art that perfectly welded intelligence, emotion and comedy back in 2004. Her is similarly accomplished, as it takes a situation where a happy ending appears to be inherently impossible and makes us experience not just the emotional but also the intellectual fluctuations of its evolution by plumbing the depths of the human soul.
Set in a Los Angeles of the near future, the film examines the consequences of a decision made by the recently separated Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) to upgrade to a new operating system. Like most people, his current OS is functional but rather impersonal, and his physical and emotional isolation, along with the late-night porn, indicate that he needs more intimate interaction in his life.
The new OS, which he speaks to and which speaks back to him in a way that is cosy and understanding and with a sense of humour, has a name, and even though it doesn’t have a body, it resembles a person in most other ways. It is “Samantha”.
One of the best casting choices for this film was the voice of Samantha. It is important that we can visualise her, and that many in the audience will feel an attraction to her. The moment she starts speaking, we know it is Scarlett Johansson, and we can “see” her just as well as Theodore thinks he knows her.
In no time, it becomes obvious that this is not just going to be an OS to read back Theodore’s e-mails and proofread his online documents, but that Samantha will be an operating system for his soul – one that fills the void that was created when his wife left him. From the very first moment, we know Theodore will fall in love with Samantha. We also know that a relationship that is purely virtual, in which the couple can’t touch each other or be touched by a facial expression, is unlikely to last very long.
And yet, Her goes about its subject with the utmost understanding for why people come together, stay together or grow apart. It doesn’t frighten us with unnecessary drama, as it could so easily have done by transforming Samantha into a hysterical, mayhem-spreading virus that blackmails him to satisfy her own needs. On the contrary, Samantha remains a mostly level-headed being that is aware of its own development and is unsure how to handle the impact of change on a relationship she obviously cares about.
But while she has the world’s knowledge at the tips of her cables, she doesn’t have the same experience as Theodore when it comes to actual social interaction. No relationship is easy, but when you are used to interacting with a physical person and now you suddenly switch gears and expect the other person’s voice and intellect alone to keep the two of you together, it is going to be particularly tough. “What’s it like to be alive?” Samantha asks him.
Interestingly, as if to make herself believe that she is as real as Theodore, Samantha often uses the word “actually” in her speech. She is an artificially intelligent organism that can use its interactions and experiences to develop and adapt, and she is obviously unlike anyone Theodore has ever dated before, but the relationship can only grow to a certain point before her invisibility becomes a serious obstacle. Her artificial origins also raise questions such as whether her feelings are “real” or programmed, and whether it matters, since many of our emotions are also responses based on conditioning or context.
One of Her’s highlights is a scene in which an escort, who has been hired by Samantha to be the body while she provides the voice, arrives at Theodore’s apartment to be a surrogate for his virtual girlfriend. All at once, the problems of the relationship are crystallised, as Theodore suddenly has to confront the fact that his girlfriend will always remain just beyond his grasp.
This disconnect is visible in other ways in film, as we see busy streets and corridors filled with people, all of whom are talking to the operating systems plugged into their ears, but almost no one is talking to anyone else.
Throughout the film, the rich and deeply resonant score by Arcade Fire enriches our experience by seemingly channelling exactly what the characters are feeling with its gentle, wordless numbers. And the product is a glorious mix – just as one would expect given the theme of the story – of sounds and images, that moreover has understanding for the maturing of a relationship, from two people sharing a laugh to them meeting and getting along with each other’s friends, to making sure the other person feels like they are being heard, listened to and understood.
This emotionally intelligent film, a love story for the 21st century, marks a return for Jonze to the world of entertaining think pieces, such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, after his disappointing previous project, Where the Wild Things Are.