Speculative science-fiction is very fascinating. Often, creative visions of the future entail new visions of transportation, shiny avant-garde and all expansive cityscapes; perhaps artificial intelligence has been perfected as well. Some visions of the future include dystopian nightmares or utopian dreams. Spike Jonze’s Her takes a subtly different approach. Set in an uncannily near future (televisions, computers and smartphones have simply gotten smaller and the cities look a little nicer), the film’s biggest and most important speculation may just be one small detail that may be overlooked by many casual viewers – Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore, makes a living writing personalized letters and messages for and between other people. This little tidbit plays into the larger themes of the film, one that deals with the fact that for every advance in the world and technology that communication between people is forever indispensable but can become a lost art and skill during the development of society. After all, what good are all of these advances in telecommunications if people simply can’t tell one another what’s on their mind, let alone understand each other?
At the heart of Spike Jonze’s heartbreaking fable about a lonely divorcee, bonding and later romancing a sentient computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is a tale about the ever evolving ways people communicate and how important it is that we do not forget the old ones. Never does the film go for the easy laugh or the manipulative tug at the heart when exploring this concept – it’s all played straight and authentic and never cynical. Ultimately the film is a melancholy comic fable – a modern love story because it’s probably the first to talk about how people use technology to stave off loneliness, an issue that rings with absolute relevance today. Think about all of the times you played a videogame, the times you logged into social media when bored, the times you trolled on internet forums, and all the people who have begun dating online- these are more than just distractions from boredom, they are manifestations of the inherent need of people to reach out to others and feel something. Jonze fully understands this, he understands it’s not an issue of good/bad but rather observes on the new sets of feeling and emotional ups and downs of this changing world. Technology runs our ideas and thoughts through filters, not just physical but often societal, whereupon those thoughts and ideas run the danger of becoming faint (and often misrepresented) echoes of what people really want to convey.
By simply forgoing the obvious route of this unconventional relationship drama where Theo’s predicament would be a morality tale about our addiction to technology Jonze not only opts for a less obvious form of social commentary, but also quietly weaves in one of the most honest and nuanced examinations of relationships and breakups. Once Theodore boots up his AI companion, Jonze goes absolutely sincere when approaching the burgeoning relationship. Jonze is also smart enough to poke at the obvious implications of such a development: is the AI, “Samantha,” with her demeanor and attitude, a marvel of computer programming or are her emotions just simply convincing replicas of the real things? Then the film throws a curveball the moment Samantha begins obsessing over and asking those questions herself. As it stands in the film, Samantha’s sentience is taken at face value so as to flesh her out as a genuine character. It’s a testament to the skills of the actors and production that Samantha maintains a powerful screen presence in the film considering she’s never ever on screen. Phoenix and Johansson’s dialogue and interactions bring this relationship to life and it sizzles with more chemistry than most on screen couplings. Her manages to balance light doses humor with the disarming poignancy of Theodore and Samantha’s story. The first time they make love, Jonze wisely turns off the camera and lets the voices speak alone: making their consummation seem not only possible but tangible. There’s even a genuinely funny and brutally honest portrayal of “morning-after awkwardness” as Theodore attempts to subtly find a way out of actually committing to his unlikely bedfellow (something that should resonate with many men and women). The film absolutely takes the relationship seriously and, in a masterstroke, presents a world surprisingly accepting of this “unnatural” pairing, something to consider in Her’s unique vision of the future.
This is a future where people are open-minded enough to the unconventional; yet somehow people have lost a certain level of communication, connection and understanding so it begs the question as to whether or not the Theo/Sam pairing is a “real” relationship. The film touches on this doubt when Theo’s ex-wife (played by a slightly miscast Rooney Mara) makes the assertion that Theodore prefers an impossibly idealized woman to a flawed but “genuine” one. Good science-fiction is always bold in posing such questions: like any work of good art it treats the landscapes of everyday things which seem intangible (the how and whys of falling in love, of finding happiness etc.) and makes them into tangible artifacts ready to be explored. The true insight of the film is reserved for the present, with Samantha as both character and metaphor. Samantha’s amassing of knowledge (or “data”) is symbolic of the emotional and intellectual growth that can often be experienced by one lover while the other does not—which sometimes causes all too resonant problems in a relationship. In terms of the relationship drama – Theodore, trapped by his insecurities and emotional hang-ups, strains to keep a romance with a lover who is consistently, rapidly and dramatically changing beyond his own comprehension.
It helps that this fable is gorgeously shot in bright and distinct colors, shades of pastels and through a clean cinematography evocative of Apple’s marketing campaigns. This is one of the few visions of the future that looks as inviting as it does close to now. The score by alt-rock band Arcade Fire is lively with its fusion of baroque pop and melodic post-punk sensibilities. This combination of stimulating visuals and sound help make the film an engaging technical experience. The actors themselves inhabit this world well. It would have been easy for Joaquin Phoenix to simply limp and mope but he instead plays his role with the full spectrum of emotions as an introspective loner who at times is equally as unlikable as he is undeniably relatable. Scarlet Johansson voices Samantha with an all-too human earnestness and sincerity, never letting the audience once doubt that she is every bit a living and sentient person and not just the sum of some programming and calculations. Chris Pratt’s light comic presence as Theo’s co-worker and friend keeps the film from dipping too far into an abyss of introspection, philosophizing and melancholy. Olivia Wilde’s brief segment as a woman whom Theo is set up on a failed date is underutilized; her scene actually manages to cover some of the same ground as Phoenix’s and Mara’s scene together and more naturally as well. As Theo’s best friend and not-quite-yet girlfriend, Amy Adams seems wholly superfluous to the film. Granted, Adams is quite talented but this was simply a case of her character being sort of unnecessary to the narrative. We don’t need to set Theo up with another human; we simply need to know that he will eventually move on to that.
Her finds the ways technology can often isolate us from each other but also examines the way how they can be used to assist in the understanding of ourselves. It works even as a metaphor for art – we use technology to help us discover the unknown just as we create art to give shape to the intangible. Ultimately the film concludes with the assertion of the value of human contact and communication but like Theo, it also concludes that an important part of love is a bond between hearts and minds, not always bodies.