It’s nothing new to say that technology runs our lives in the modern world. We rely on countless gadgets to give us a hand with every minute task, almost completely substituting them instead of our own intuition, skill, or natural tendencies. Before we get out of hand here I’d like to use a personal example, so bear with me.
I’m not ashamed to admit I don’t have a smartphone. It’s not out of some misguided hipster irony or anything that I still have one of those old flip phones, but just take it at face value that I don’t have an iPhone or Droid or whatever weird name the next one will be called. Not having these shining pieces of modern omnipotence has given me a bizarrely keen insight to our overreliance on them. Everyday people bury their noses in them on the subway or while walking around looking for directions and talking to Siri, all the while not simply looking up to take in the world around them. The worst is when people record videos of something on their iPhone and are glued to the screen instead of experiencing the actual moment they’re trying so hard to capture, and it’s sad. We’ve reached a troubling crossroads where personal human experience is increasingly subordinate to the technological means to make those moments happen. Have I gone off the rails yet? Yes, well, I was afraid of that. Even if I sound crazy, all this babbling is a vain attempt to anecdotally explain why writer/director Spike Jonze’s new film Her is very, very good. At once it is the story of a man addressing his own loneliness in a near-utopian future, but it is also an extremely acute film about bridging the gap between the technological and the personal in modern life.
Jonze’s protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is having a tough time. Despite working at a tragic job where he excels at writing other people’s love letters for them, he can’t seem to find his own way to make the sentiments and emotions behind them work in his own life. He’s going through nasty divorce proceedings with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Catherine (played with a devastatingly coy cuteness by Rooney Mara in a beautiful series of sun-dappled flashbacks), who explains in her one current appearance in the film that Theodore was never really present in their relationship and hid himself away from her. While not on the job he spends his time usually moping around his nearly empty apartment playing immersive video games as an obvious way to separate himself from reality. That is until he impulsively decides to purchase an OS1, a new and lifelike operation system (in this case voiced by Scarlett Johansson) he communicates with through a Bluetooth-like earbud that learns exponentially as it goes along catering to his nearly every need. The brightly-tinted startup screen bleeps to life, names herself Samantha—instinctively choosing the moniker from a baby name book she read in the nanoseconds since she began functioning—and immediately charms both Theodore and the audience as well.
Eventually the two connect on a more intimate level. A guy falling in love with a computer might cause the immature skeptics out there to snicker, but Jonze’s script treats it with a reassuring awareness and sensible levity, always making sure to cut the absurdity off at the pass with biting humor or sincere character moments even if their connection seems implausible at first. Pheonix is wonderfully believable as the sad sack caught up in this United Colors of Benneton-tinged future Los Angeles, surrounded by life but always leaning on his vital relationship with Samantha for emotional leverage. Thankfully Johansson’s performance is a wonderfully realized bit of acting to round things out, which is no small feat considering she’s never onscreen once and there’s no sort of avatar icon to stand in for Samantha’s image. Theodore sometimes seeks the advice of his best friend Amy (played with an acceptable nonchalance by Amy Adams), a video game designer going through her own relationship woes that acts as an interesting contrast. Yet the real magic narrative-wise, unbeknownst to both Theodore and the audience, is that Samantha is the ideal soulmate because she’s programmed that way, and his initially gleeful ignorance eventually plays into their relationship when he is forced to confront her alleged sentience as they get closer and closer. This is where Jonze weaves in the clever contemporary connections about people and technology, and pushes his characters into unknown realms of possibility where we ourselves may be headed.
The cinematography by first-time Spike Jonze collaborator Hoyte van Hoytema brings it to gorgeous life whether Theodore brings her to the beach or on a snowy vacation, but the real treat is the way the near-future-LA—created using existing LA locations and Shanghai as a stand-in—is lovingly photographed filled with its neon blinking skyscrapers and pervasive mass transit systems making the film a fully realized delight. Jonze has said that he wanted to make an LA film, and to have it be this unique begs for him to keep making films with such an emphasized setting.
Though it hints at larger ideas the film always sticks with Theodore and Samantha’s story, and focuses on the way they work through their progressively implausible situation. The emotions Theodore is feeling are real, but what about the emotions that Samantha is feeling? Do operation systems dream of true love, or is it just a complex series of 1s and 0s? In the end nothing beats true human emotion, but what if the path to those emotions that define you come from artificial means? Jonze’s love story is heartbreaking in its depiction of a man trying to find out the answers and realizing that maybe it’s the parts that count instead of the whole. It’s a great personal turn for Jonze and is—dare I say—his best film yet.