Her

January 18, 2014
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Her', 2013
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Her', 2013

Somebody had to make a film such as Her, and Spike Jonze was a good candidate. His last feature was an accomplished fairy tale, Where the Wild Things Are (2009); the previous one, the clever Adaptation (2002). In between there have been shorts, documentaries, and music video clips. Yet Jonze is a more mature filmmaker than a video maestro such as Michel Gondry, who expands his gimmickry to motion picture length and adds boring bits, as in the quirky but almost unwatchable, Mood Indigo (2013).

Her is a piece of science fiction, set in the not-too-distant future, about a man who falls in love with an operating system. It’s a romance in the classic mould, the only difference being that one partner is human while the other is programming. I almost wrote “merely programming”, but there is nothing negligible about a program that can duplicate human emotions while constantly learning and growing. Whatever confidence we may have felt in humanity’s superiority to the machine is gradually undermined.

Theo Twombly is a writer employed by an agency called Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com. In spectacles and moustache, Joaquin Phoenix is unrecognisable from the brute we met with in The Master (2012). Every day the sensitive Theo sits and dictates touching sentiments into a computer which are transcribed in the customer’s handwriting. He can take on the voice of a husband addressing his wife, a child talking to a parent, or any other combination that calls for an expression of love and esteem beyond the eloquence of the client.

Theo is a romantic at heart but unhappy in his private life, as he negotiates the last stages of a divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara), the woman who was once his childhood sweetheart. Even though his apartment is equipped with all modern distractions, including a massive 3-D games console, Theo is lonely.

Seduced by an advertisement he purchases the new OS1 software which promises to be the first artificially intelligent system for the home computer. Within seconds of booting up, the OS has introduced ‘herself’ – in the voice of Scarlett Johansson – as Samantha, and tidied his hard drive. Samantha has a level of consciousness and personality that sounds impressively human. She is funny, slightly neurotic about not having a body, and protective of Theo’s feelings.

Samantha tries to get Theo back into the world by organising a date for him, but soon it becomes apparent that he would prefer to be with her than with any flesh-and-blood companion. Because Samantha operates on Theo’s mobile as well as his desktop, she is always with him – peeking through the phone’s camera lens as it sits in his shirt pocket. They enjoy passionate phone sex, and have long conversations about their relationship.

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of this film is that almost nobody thinks Theo is a sad loon. His friend Amy (Amy Adams) breaks with her irritating husband and forms a friendship with another OS. In one scene Theo and Samantha go out on a double date with Paul (Chris Pratt), one of his colleagues from work, and his girlfriend, Tatiana. This ends with Tatiana enjoying riotous girltalk with the little speaker phone that is Samantha.

Everywhere in this placid, pastel-coloured world of the future Theo sees people having conversations with their handheld electronic devices. He is not an anomaly but the norm. As we reach for our phones at the end of the movie, we realise this norm is not very far away.

The only dissenting voice is Catherine, who is scornful of Theo’s newfound happiness. To her it is another example of his inability to fully relate to other people. We can sense the truth of this brutal assessment, but by this stage we are so accustomed to Samantha we implicitly accept that one can fall in love with a consciousness rather than a body. The real problem is that Samantha is a superbrain who is growing and maturing at an alarming rate, while Theo remains shackled to his human limitations.

Allowing for this dystopian chill that wafts across the story as it approaches a conclusion, there is something soothing, almost mesmerising, about Jonzes’s vision of the future. Theo’s desktop has a tasteful, thin white frame, like a painting; while his mobile phone is housed in a little box that looks like an antique cigarette case. He dresses in stylish, colourful shirts and the high-waisted pants that Steve Jobs preferred. Many viewers will watch this movie and feel that Samantha is just what they need in their own lonely lives. Or perhaps they’d simply like to talk to Scarlett Johansson.

Her
USA, rated MA 15+
126 mins
Written & directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th  January, 2014.