Whenever Spike Jonze surfaces with his new film, it invariably causes a fair amount of buzz, and for a good reason. He might not be the most prolific director with only four full-feature films under his belt (and a boat-load of shorts and documentaries), but it doesn’t change the fact that each and every one of his creations is unique, cerebral and unforgettable in a way. Jonze’s films always bring something new to the table, by either inciting an intellectual conversation, or by offering an interesting new angle to a currently relevant topic, and “Her” is no different. In fact, it is much more socially relevant and brutally insightful than any other of his previous films. And it is a delight to watch.
“Her” takes place in a world very similar to ours, but with the technology only slightly more advanced. In it we meet Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) – a quiet and shy recent divorcé who spends his days writing letters for other people and the nights playing video games and engaging in internet not-so-much-dating-but-rather-consensual-masturbation. As you can imagine, Theodore’s life is mostly empty and devoid of human interaction… …apart from the occasional awkward conversation in the lift with his neighbour (Amy Adams), or with a slightly too creepy colleague (Chris Pratt). One day, tempted by advertisement, Theodore buys a new operating system for his phone (and everything else…), that is supposed to be super-smart, completely personalized, and – most importantly – self-aware. After a couple of really personal questions, Theodore is introduced to the voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) – his new OS – who takes charge over his emails, meetings, social gatherings, and (little by little) his entire life. Faster than he could possibly think, Theodore finds himself developing emotional attachment to his charming and cheeky companion, who eventually learns to reciprocate the feeling…
Now, I am having a real trouble calling the world of “Her” a dystopian future, even though it bears all the characteristics of one. Everything about this universe is glossy, sanitized, and definitely very retro, but underneath all this one can definitely detect the fishy Orwellian note. Though it’s not the Big Brother that looms over this world, but the people themselves who grew addicted to technology to a point where ‘regular’ human contact got twisted into forced artificial conversation and pre-coital social convention. In “Her” nobody really talks to one another. Everyone goes about their days with earphones on talking on the phone, checking emails, and conversing with their self-aware OS’s; which is only a couple steps away from where we are at present.
Sometimes, in order to highlight an important problem, it is necessary to blow it to extreme proportions – this is how the art of caricature works. However, when it comes to “Her”, the notion of humans growing more dependent on technology didn’t really receive much of a kick, which makes the film even more powerful. If you take away the commercially available artificial intelligence and maybe holographic foul-mouthed interactive video games, we are just around the corner from that juncture already. Hidden safely behind our Facebook avatars we poke other people, water each other’s pixels and press ‘like’ for the children in need. And let’s be clear that I’m as guilty of that as the next guy. When outside, I rarely take my headphones off, as it is so much more comfortable to suppress the outside world and listen to podcasts all day. But I digress…
In all honesty, “Her” does go the extreme in building the world, where we’ve gone all the way and relinquished all human contact, and Theodore is a perfect example of that. He couldn’t hold onto his wife (Rooney Mara; by the way, this film is just packed with A-list ladies) and he is incapable of establishing anything even remotely emotional with a real human being. And at the same time, he can be the most romantic guy ever, who would write the most tear-jerking love letters for a pair of people he hasn’t even met. It’s just the way the world is, that’s all. No-one bats an eye at the idea of dating your computer, as if it was the next logical step in human evolution. I know it is a bit ridiculous from where I’m standing now, but odds are, we are not that far away from some of those things becoming a reality.
The reason I found “Her” that powerful in its message definitely has to do with the subtlety, with which the problem is raised. We don’t really need to build artificial worlds and spend forever explaining the rules to create a thought-provoking story. All we need is an idea embedded in a universe we could understand and some meticulously woven detail sprinkled throughout, to make everything seem more real and immersive. But none of that would work without the set of relatable and fleshed-out characters. Without a doubt, “Her” is what it is thanks to the interplay between Joaquin Phoenix’s character and Scarlett Johansson’s voice, who gave really powerful and multi-dimensional performances.
The combination of a carefully designed universe, intriguing story with a relevant problem at heart, stunning yet very calculated performances, and ‘indie-esque’ photography make “Her” a film to remember. You can call it a love story, but we all know it’s so much more than that. “Her” is a poke to have you think about where we’re headed, because it’s not going to be pretty. And by the end of the film, the message becomes very clear and painful, but not at all ham-fisted.
Now, if you excuse me, I have a Candy Crush level to finish….