In a future not too dissimilar to now, a boy will meet a girl and fall in love. It’s not quite the age-old love story it seems however, and Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls for Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an advanced computer operating system.
Her (2013) is the latest film from filmmaker Spike Jonze and in many ways its characters are recognisable from the directors other work. Theodore is an unhappy middle-aged man, in a job he hates, and experiencing crippling loneliness. He inhabits a world of technologically connected people but is always alone. At work he writes letters and cards for other people and he knows a great deal about them but has never met them. It’s all a bit like the present day social media craze but it’s a hyper version of now.
Theodore has recently divorced his wife and it’s left him in a perpetual state of depression. The soundtrack is muffled and from Theodore’s perspective everything seems distant and perhaps even pointless. The love letters he writes at work almost mock where he is now and it only serves to influence his happiness negatively.
Things change however when Theodore installs a new operating system on his computer. Once installed the system boots up and a female voice greets him. Her name is Samantha and she’s charming and convincingly real. She immediately makes herself indispensable and starts to organise Theodore’s untidy computer hard drive. She’s just doing what she’s programmed to do but to Theodore she’s someone to talk to and she seems deceptively tangible.
Her’s modern romance
Samantha is designed to mould to the users needs and this grants Theodore the illusion of uniqueness. They start staying up late at night talking and they do numerous activities that suggest that they’re dating. They’re never apart due to Wifi, mobile internet, and earpieces meaning that they can share their entire time together. In every sense other than anything tangible they are a couple and it proves simple enough at first – bar the sex. They’re very compatible and they seem to function well as a couple.
This non-traditional partnership however does present problems and Theodore finds it hard to tell anyone about his new girlfriend. There’s obviously an assumption that the initial societal reception of this type of coupling would be considered strange or unusual and Theodore maintains his quiet solitary existence – just this time with Samantha present.
Phoenix shines in Her and his restrained performance keeps the whole film at some sort of muted level. It’s all about connecting with someone and the traditional notion of who or what that is becomes increasingly challenged. The camera retains a close watch on Phoenix’s expressions throughout and the actor shows a considerable variety of facial ticks and mannerisms. It’s all in the minute details and Johansson is no exception. She is a disembodied presence for the entire film but through her voice acting she carries a number of emotions ranging from playful to angry.
Good casting choices
The pairing of Phoenix and Johansson works well and they bounce off each other with convincing patter. The setting, scripting, and the narrative touches are finely honed and this is because of Jonze’s fastidious writing. Books in his future are rare and unused antiques, and video games are the medium of choice. Her is infused with nostalgia whether its Theodore’s longing for his past with his wife, or his desire to write books. The future doesn’t look too bright or happy and the suggestion seems to be that this is where technology could take us, if left unchecked.
Theodore’s life is not devoid of meaning or friendship, he simply fails to see it. A close friend Amy (Amy Adams) provides some respite to his gloomy outlook and she even envies his relationship with Samantha. Amy tells Theodore that there are many people in relationships with their OS and this initially reassures him. Society seems to be accepting and appropriating this new habit validating Theodore’s romantic choices.
Her is an unusual film and the concept is pushed and tested at every point. Moral questions are posed, as are logistical ones, and it seems harder and harder to see Samantha and Theodore’s relationship working. But the film has an ironic tone and it does feel like a satirical piece for most of its runtime. Part social commentary and part comedy, Her takes the viewer further and further from traditional notions of human relationships. Our disconnectedness, and our fear of the unknown seem to battle each other making us both intrigued and repulsed by this new paradigm.
The future LA setting is meticulously detailed and the slow and unhurried pace of the film leaves plenty of time to see the detailed world Jonze has developed. The streets are car free and trains are high speed but the clean white city seems so unloved and unlived in. No one talks or interacts and everyone seems atomised and separate from each other. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha doesn’t seem so strange in this context – we find connections where we can.
Questions about the contemporary relationship with technology
Yes, this is a romance movie and at many times it feels slight but there’s depth to it and the questions it poses, sometimes clumsily, are ones that perhaps need answering. The narrative stutters slightly as Samantha’s role in Theodore’s life becomes less about creepy sci-fi and more about bickering couples. The playful opening act leads to an over laden and stagnant second act. But perhaps that’s a narrative foil; it’s simply a reflection of their relationship.
Her is an interesting film from Jonze and it provides some form of social commentary in amongst its artsy whimsy. It’s a carefully plotted, beautifully shot, futuristic love story and it suggests that our current flirtation with technology could well bloom into a love affair.