Director: Spike Jonze
Running Time: 126 min
Year of Release: 2013
Can you fall in love with a disembodied voice? Can you fall in love with data, anointed with a consciousness? What the hell is love anyway, and how can it stand up to, or heck answer to, any kind of rule or reason? Her, Spike Jonze’s new sci-fi romance between man and machine, asks these questions about love and technology in the modern world in the form of a hipster/geek’s wet-dream.
The film is as much about ‘him’ as ‘her’; and ‘he’ is called Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix)—a name which sounds as if it’s been lifted from the tag of an old Womble plush-toy. High-waisted pants are inexplicably trendy in the future, and in keeping with this grandpoppin’ fashion, Twombly rides his belt closer to his armpits than his elbows. The hipster portrait is made complete with heavy-rimmed glasses and a mournful yet luscious moustache.
Twombly works as a ghost-writer for other people’s most intimate letters; serving as s a kind of emotional surrogate for couples too busy to do the heavy-lifting in a relationship. Loping softly back to his New York apartment, Twombly— despondent after a painful separation from his wife— is offered to upgrade his computer operating system (OS) to one that is more advanced, more intelligent, and more intuitive to his needs. With little thought, he accepts.
In an early point of no return, ‘it’ is humanized through the pronoun ‘her’; and her name (she decides after reading an entire book of baby names in two hundredths of a second) is Samantha. Voiced in the husky, mellifluous tones of Scarlett Johansson, the OS both bemuses and intrigues Twombly. Samantha is smart—but with the kind of light-speed processing centres and artificial synapses that cover an infinite bank of information, who wouldn’t be? She is also funny, empathic and sweet. She is, ironically, the complete realisation of the promised ‘responsiveness’, ‘interactivity’ and ‘intelligence’ advertised by all manufacturers of modern devices, from coffee machines to smart phones.
As with all new relationships, the space between Twombly and Samantha is initially vast. Yet, as their interaction gradually defaults to one of equals, the absurdity of man and machine disintegrates into a convincing intimacy. The two play video games together, communicate endlessly, stroll through New York’s nightlife (with a thoughtful safety pin in Twombly’s shirt pocket enabling Samantha to see the world as he does through her tiny camera-phone eye). It feels like a long-distance relationship with a PA ghost, whose site of haunting just happens to be a mobile phone. And yes, in case you’re wondering, sex with Siri’s replacement, it happens. But don’t worry: no matte surfaces get spunked. Or at least, if they do, the camera is too abashed to look.
Surprisingly, most of the other characters are extremely accepting and open-minded when Twombly confesses the unnatural nature of his digital romance (perhaps, as we learn, there are a few others in this dating game too). From Theodore’s long-time friend Amy (Amy Adams), who has just split up with her insensitive chump of a husband, the reaction is one of enlightened maturity. Theodore’s co-worker is also jovially liberal, inviting the couple on a picnic double-date without batting an eyelid. His soon-to-be ex-wife (Rooney Mara) however, responds with an icy cocktail of ridicule, pity and incredulity. ‘It makes me very sad that you can’t handle real emotions Theodore,’ she says.
In essence, the film drifts through confronting questions of how technology changes the way we experience relationships. Can it deepen our connections, or does it alienate us? Do we have ‘just cause’ for scorning— as Twombly’s ex-wife believes— online-based interactions as some kind of small drama of ersatz emotions? As a sad and delusional co-fantasy of the scared and anti-social? Or is love always the same kind of diseased insanity, the same weird merging of consciousness through serendipitous chance— logistics aside?
As a programmed consciousness trapped within an invisible ubiquity, Samantha’s key marketing point— her ability to grow from experience— means that she rapidly evolves far beyond her intended function. But instead of dreaming of world domination—as is the inevitable trajectory of many stories on the subject of artificial life— she instead is most concerned with the human heart (which, come to think about it, sounds like the perfect beginning to a bloodless coup. Sequel film: Damn Her Digital Cyclopean Eye).
With her intelligence expanding unchecked, Samantha acquires needs, desires, and the capacity for experiencing a very human kind of pain along with a very unique kind of existential suffering. It is here that the science fiction element comes into its own. As a kind of tissue-less life, she invokes all the dilemmas usually surrounding experimental genetics; only now we see the geeks as the callow, corporatized gods playing dangerous games.
Although all actors give outstanding performances throughout, Phoenix is sublime. The sincerity of his character means that, although the film should probably feel corny and creepy, it never does. The movements of the drama are poetic, the cinematography pellucid, and the screenplay is tender and often very funny (one of the most memorable scenes involves Sexy Kitten screaming ‘strangle me with that dead cat’ to Big Guy 4x4. Don’t ask, just watch). The score, composed by Canadian band Arcade Fire, has a melodious purity to it that makes the viewing experience akin to a languid boat ride along a clear and sandy-bottomed lake.
Through humanising technology—literally—and suffusing the story with warmth and gentle humour, Her belies the prevailing image of the online world as one which resembles some bleak and teeming landscape inhabited by skulking, personality-shy low-lives. Although the concerns it explores are hardly ground-breaking, and if we’re talking about action, well stop talking now, the overwhelming affective virtues of the film make Her very easy to fall in love with.
Her is showing from the 16th of January at Luna Leederville and Luna on SX.