It’s no secret that social media and technology have drastically changed the way we live our lives and the way we interact with other people. Look around virtually any well-populated area, especially areas where people are being forced to wait for something, and an alarming number of human beings are having what appear to be very important relationships with their mobile devices. What is significantly more alarming though is to look around actual social events and see how many people seem to be far more interested in their mobile devices than simply conversing with the human beings in their very presence. Fifteen years ago, these were young kids with their Game Boys and whatnot, but today it seems to be people of all ages with their smartphones. It’s a shame to think that there may be no going back. Technology has given us the ability to always have the temptation to escape our current environment and become engrossed in a game, a news article, a conversation with someone more interesting than the person standing right in front of you; and it’s all right in the palm of your hand.
Obviously, this is a rather cynical attitude to take towards the current state of our society, and of course not every person alive has allowed these newfangled gizmos to take over their sense of being, but it’s definitely out there and it’s definitely changed things. Spike Jonze’s brilliant new film, Her, asks the question of what a world would be like if these devices possessed artificial intelligence and could actually be friends to you. Not just “siri-like” human voices to give robotic verbal responses, but a voice that could actually converse, laugh, cry and console, like an actual human being. Furthermore, what if they could be lovers?
Joaquin Phoenix brings a tender approach to his role as Theodore, who has fairly recently had his heart broken by his wife (Rooney Mara) and so far has resisted the idea of starting to date again. Like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in (500) Days Of Summer, he works for a greeting card company, except that in this world rather than a pat Hallmark card that goes out in large quantities to your local Rite Aid, he personally will use a software capable of performing human handwriting to write out an entire letter specifically for you. He stays up at night playing video games (a character in which is hilariously voiced by Spike Jonze himself) and maintains a platonic relationship with a long-time female friend, Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband, with whom she seems to be on shaky ground.
He snatches up an O.S. (Operating System) and strikes up a conversation with it immediately. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the O.S. instantly gives itself the name of Samantha. The interaction between Theodore, the character “with a body,” and Samantha, this artificially intelligent operating system, is as natural as any conversation we’ve seen Theodore have. Despite his reluctance at first, we see Theodore relax into the idea of speaking with a disembodied voice very quickly and the friendship blossoms beautifully. After going on a terribly awkward date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde, Samantha seems to be developing feelings for Theodore, as he does towards she, and a relationship is struck.
The fact that few people seem to express a great deal of surprise at the idea that Theodore is dating his operating system is a frightening and often hilarious element to this love story. When a coworker of his says that they should do a double date, and Theodore has to reluctantly tell him that, “She’s an O.S.,” the co-worker reacts as if he simply said that she has brown hair. Even though the audience is well-aware that this is a disembodied machine, the film succeeds in making her real to us, and Phoenix is wholly convincing as a guy who might be perfectly content with such a thing. He never makes the mistake of turning Theodore into a sad-sack. Just a man living in the not-too-distant future who is overjoyed simply to have a conversation with another person.
Spike Jonze doesn’t overdo the futuristic aspect of the story. The people really don’t seem that different from how they do today. Nobody speaks in a baffling After Earth-like accent, or wears horribly bizarre clothing, and everyone seems pretty content with the way life is. The focus of the movie is humanity – the connection Phoenix feels with Samantha, the regret he feels about the failure of his marriage. He has several truly heartbreaking monologues, some of which are beautifully spoken over flashback sequences of when things were good and when things were bad. His ex accuses him of being incapable of having a true human connection. He has to create an artificial one that suits his needs. But he loves talking to Samantha. He’s happy. Just because she’s not a physical creature, if he’s happy, who are we to judge?
The commitment on the part of Jonze and the actors is essential to the film’s success. While certain laughs are unavoidable with such a premise, they never push too hard to make things funny, as that would have been death to this concept. It’s handled with care, and I was with it every step of the way. He films Phoenix’s face in a way that’s almost as up close and personal as Paul Thomas Anderson did in The Master. Very long shots are devoted to simply watching him speak as Johansson’s lovely voice fills the theater, and as we are given the chance to study every line in his face, and every hair on his mustache, he never faulters. He is one of our greatest actors working today. And I was very surprised to learn at the end that the wonderfully touching score was done by renowned rock band Arcade Fire. This music serves the film very well without calling attention to itself.
Her is a love story and poignant commentary on the digital age. It succeeds beautifully at both. It’s certainly one of the best films of the year.
Grade – A