Every now and again a science fiction film comes along that successfully manages to tap in to the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist, and though these movies are often set in the future they normally illuminate the way in which we are living today. Her, the new high-concept film by the remarkably offbeat and creative director Spike Jonze, is one such work: it offers a largely plausible futuristic version of Los Angeles in 2025 in which reliance on technology has increased human loneliness and the expression of one’s feelings toward spouses, relatives and close friends is fast becoming a dying art. Anyone who regularly uses public transport in western urban environments will be aware of the hold that smartphones, laptops and tablets currently have over their owners, and Jonze runs with this idea, highlighting the fact that man’s recent technological advances in the field of global communications have in fact led to a decline in our desire and ability to actually communicate face-to-face with each other.
Jonze co-wrote the adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book Where The Wild Things Are with Dave Eggers, but Her is his first solo screenplay (his earlier successes, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, were both written by Charlie Kaufman). It concerns a withdrawn, slightly nerdy and emotionally-bruised man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is employed by a company called Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com. Theodore’s job, unsurprisingly, is to craft beautiful handwritten letters for people who feel that they are unable to express their true feelings toward their loved ones, the irony being that his own personal life is in a bit of a mess; Theodore is in the middle of divorce proceedings following the breakdown of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) and is reliant on phone sex and pictures of celebrities for thrills, although he has remained friends with ex-girlfriend Amy (Amy Adams, excellent yet again).
The lonely Theodore sees an advert for a new operating system which purports to be the world’s first OS with artificial intelligence, and his interest is piqued enough to make an impulse buy. It’s interesting to note that this advert, which features a number of confused people disconnected from (and walking blindly into) each other, is echoed later on in the film as Theodore wanders the walkways connecting LA’s stations and buildings. The majority of his fellow Angelenos now seem to own this new OS, and the ‘real life’ crowd Theodore walks through resembles the zombified actors of the advert, their obsession with the OS almost rendering them oblivious to the presence of other people. Upon installation of the system he is asked a series of questions – in an amusing scene is repeatedly and brutally cut off mid-answer – and after choosing the ‘female voice’ option he is introduced to ‘Samantha’ (Scarlett Johansson). (It’s interesting that the question of gender is seemingly an unimportant one – Theodore only gives it a moment’s consideration – but it has an important effect on his life thereafter.)
Samantha is able to converse with Theodore as well as organize his emails and arrange social engagements. She is even able to wake him up in the middle of the night when she wants a chat. Gradually Theodore falls in love with Samantha, and the feeling is – according to the system, which is evolving and learning at a fast pace – mutual. And thus, in a world where the stigma attached to virtual relationships has apparently almost disappeared, a strange 21st Century computer love story blossoms: Theodore is occasionally reticent, but otherwise publicly admits his love for Samantha, and is only judged negatively – understandably – by Catherine.
The meat of Jonze’s film deals with the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, which progresses in a relatively straightforward – at times clichéd – way: at first they are smitten, and the honeymoon period includes public displays of affection as Theodore spins around joyfully through the sleek, sanitised and sun-drenched city with his smartphone held at arm’s length. Samantha even tries to experience sex with Theodore via a proxy (Portia Doubleday), which goes as well as you’d expect it to. Then there’s a brief jealousy stage, in which Theodore is introduced to another OS Samantha has befriended, which is based by programmers on the philosopher and writer Alan Watts (voiced by Brian Cox). (Incidentally, echoing Where The Wild Things Are, Jonze uses the voices of quite a few well-known actors in Her. As well as Johansson and Cox, the voices of French singer Soko, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig all appear in the film, as well as some voice acting by Jonze himself – credited under his real name Adam Spiegel. Wiig’s brief scene as a phone sex partner with a cat fetish is one of the film’s funniest.) Finally – and without wanting to give too much away – there is the messy ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ break-up, in which one partner ‘outgrows’ (i.e. ‘gets bored of’) the other.
Jonze blends together this mixture of romance, science fiction and humour superbly, applying the offbeat tone of his earlier films to Theodore’s world. Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com is essentially an ultra-modern, sleeker and less-zany version of Being John Malkovich‘s LesterCorp: a strange, unreal place to spend one’s working days, and crucial in terms of setting the overall mood of the movie. Theodore’s video game-fuelled life at home is equally odd, and there are laughs provided by the futuristic versions of today’s interactive gaming experiences. Indeed the way in which Jonze has modified technology for the purposes of his film is largely believable – we could easily be using phones and monitors like Theodore’s that are retro in design in ten years’ time, and no doubt our lives will continue to be ‘managed’ via objects that are already essentially small computers rather than mere phones. Additionally, the current trend for linking social media, gaming consoles and various other home entertainment systems and hard drives means that the minimal, book- and CD-free apartments of Amy and Theodore are an entirely likely norm of the future;.
The design throughout is interesting, with Jonze suggesting that the future will bring so many skyscrapers (in Los Angeles at least) that it will be nigh on impossible to identify any differences between them. Similarly, the way people dress in this cafe latte utopia is uniform and bland, with unpatterned, high-trousered casual wear the order of the day; there’s seemingly no place for goths, punks, suits or any other distinctive type you may care to mention in Jonze’s 2025. This LA is clean, safe, and somewhat depressing to consider: it looks like the kind of wet dream enjoyed nightly by the advertising brains of GAP, Apple, Google and Starbucks, a threat-free hipster techno playground where the only jobs that remain are in the creative industries. It may as well be re-named DavidKarpville, JonathanIveland or Zuckerberg-on-sea.
Looking at this world – which, I say again, resembles our own enough to make it believable – it’s little wonder that Theodore, and presumably many other citizens, finds happiness by withdrawing into a more personal space. There is little to engage the mind aside from phones, games and computers; the overriding feature of this city is its blandness, and contemplating it makes me wonder whether the large number of adverts that have taken over our public spaces today is such a bad thing after all (if this is the alternative, anyway). Interestingly, we do get to see a lot of this city, but very few interiors; aside from a couple of apartments, a station and an office there’s just one scene set inside a restaurant, if memory serves, and that is a tellingly minimal, boring room.
Jonze has taken those quirky technology stories of recent years we often hear about or read – people falling in love with video game characters or forming entire relationships with complete strangers through online role-playing games like Second Life – and taken them to a kinda/sorta logical next level. Phoenix gets his performance just about right, and as a result it’s possible to find this unusual relationship plausible. His Theodore is a peaceful, likeable-but-timid man, a nervy introvert who has much in common with Jonze’s previous main characters, and his need to feel loved is considerable. His openness to a relationship with an operating system is understandable given the emotional shock caused by his separation from Catherine, and it is echoed by Amy’s parallel relationship with her (female) OS following her own split from husband Charles (Matt Letscher).
The film isn’t perfect, and some very unsubtle imagery is included at times, particularly when the relationship starts to fall apart – when Theodore and Samantha go on holiday and stay in a cabin in the mountains, for example, Jonze includes shots of icicles thawing, which feels a little clunky. Additionally the logical conclusion of the relationship at the heart of the film is so obvious it seems to take forever to actually arrive, although I will say that the idea of technology outgrowing the human race, and subsequently ditching it before going who knows where, is superb. (I’d never considered this before, but isn’t it more logical than (and just as brutal as) the machine-led attacks and slavery of the Terminator / Matrix worlds?) It’s ruthless and you could say it’s cold-hearted, but how can it be if there’s no heart involved?
Finally, this isn’t necessarily a criticism, but the decision to cast and record Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Samantha instead of the original on-set actor Samantha Morton is an interesting one. This move apparently received Morton’s blessing, and while Johansson’s voice is certainly sexy in a conventional, sultry way, it is also easily recognisable, and so surely everyone who goes to see this film will picture Johansson’s face and/or body while watching it. I would love to see a version with Morton as Samantha – or any version where the actor’s voice is not so recognisable – just purely out of interest.
These are minor quibbles and observations though. Despite one or two predictable moments – most notably the ending – Her is an enjoyable, thought-provoking film, and it is filled with invention. It may focus on one single relationship with technology, but really it is about the relationship the human race has as a whole with our increasingly hi-tech games, communication devices and systems. Shot with the same, sun-dappled sheen as Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, it is a rewarding visual experience and it includes some fine acting, both on and off screen. Her cements Jonze’s reputation as one of the most original talents working in Hollywood today.
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara
Running Time: 126 minutes