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Director Spike Jonze has made a career out of pushing visual aesthetics into visceral new levels of pleasure. His mind-bending tales challenge social commentary in some of the most profound ways possible with simple tweaks to familiar formulas. In fact, it is hard to even consider him a science fiction director simply because his tales feel real. He is working on levels above the average filmmaker, and that is one of the many reasons that his latest Her feels like the most honest depiction of a computer-to-human relationship. By humanizing the circuits, he unlocks the mysteries of love and codependency while also exploring why technology may better our lives, but it will also isolate us in delusional bliss.
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) opens the film with a striking move. He narrates an impassioned statement of love while facing the camera. Despite this, his eyes never align with direct contact to the camera. It is slowly revealed that this is because he is a greeting cards writer who narrates people’s messages onto a computer. While he holds close friendships with coworkers (Chris Pratt) and neighbors (Amy Adams), his loneliness is evident with his insular retraction from the world due to a divorce from his wife (Rooney Mara). Much like the template design, his existence in Los Angeles feels strange. He walks among crowds, sulking and ends up playing high-tech video games with characters (voiced by Spike Jonze) cursing at him. It is an excitingly opaque world that already shows the seams of technological integration coinciding with humans.
Among Theodore’s loneliness, he discovers a way to date his operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who desires nothing more than to understand human wants and desires. It plays out with the familiar romantic tropes starting with the awkward first date to eventual intimacy and even a sexual encounter. It may cause Theodore to look schizophrenic as he speaks on a headset to Samantha in public, but that is the charm. Love is always a strange concept to those who haven’t experienced public moments of explicit affection. Despite the limitations of Samantha, she feels real as this disembodied voice, whose desires to grasp the human world replaces conversation about typical body issues with the simple idea of having one. There are concepts that neither can fully grasp, but somehow they connect.
It is mostly striking that Her is successful in pulling this off because the concept is ridiculous. The Los Angeles that embodies this film is familiar yet distant. This is most evident in the gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who uses vibrant colors to illustrate the subtle differences in fashion, architecture, and even clarity. There are numerous shots throughout the film that are accompanied by nothing more than Will Butler and Owen Pallett’s meditative score that finds the peace of mind. We aren’t privy to all of Theodore’s conversations, which are sometimes muted out in attempts to express where his real concern with communication is coming from. This is also evident in the presentation of shots in which Theodore is alone and the world feels massive around him, forcing a sense of miniscule. Along with the compelling story, the shots alone are visually poetic and thematically complex often in their simplicity. It causes the film to feel as much like a think piece as it does an entertaining tale.
This all couldn’t have been done without a nuanced performance by Joaquin Phoenix. As Theodore, he feels like the mild-mannered cousin to Phoenix’s Freddie from The Master. Both were men searching for love, though Theodore is more insular about it. Where Freddie had a cast of characters to play off of, Theodore feels like he is battling inner demons. In numerous shots, Theodore is required to emote without an opposing actor onscreen. As the opening scene suggests, nobody writes anymore and instead ventilates to a computer. This whole experience could serve not only as a tale of relationships, but the effects of having no choice but to open up to a computer; a device that will search through your entire e-mail history in seconds and perform operations without your consent. The world is a confusing place when that replaces private thoughts. Samantha reflects the complexity of this and despite the sense that Theodore has his life in control; he also has to be careful what he says in order to avoid incriminating information from getting out.
At the end of the film, it does raise numerous questions on our relationship with technology. Even if it feels embraced in Her, it also could serve as a cautionary tale. Computers may provide pleasure and company, but they will never understand the human touch. What Jonze has done with the screenplay is explore the parallel concepts of physical romance and how it has slowly blurred into technology. As much as Samantha embodies emotional concepts familiar to a real life woman, she can never be one. It creates delusional perceptions that are essentially fleeting. The Los Angeles presented may be far more beautiful and futuristic, but not in the Blade Runner fashion. It is meant to suggest that these actions are happening right now and despite being labeled sci-fi, the film feels real. We are already posting trivial posts on the internet and making interactive video games: all concepts presented in this story in heightened ways. Soon we will lose ourselves in conversation with computer characters and the irony of Jonze’s tightly comical, romantic, and philosophical script will become evident in ways that will make this feel like a time capsule of the modern era and his defining achievement as a director in an already impressive resume.
The genius of Her is that there are limitless aspects of interpretation. Whether viewed as a love story or a cautionary tale, all elements are presented in captivating fashion. Helmed by a terrific performance by Phoenix, this look at Los Angeles in the not too distant future is full of tenderness and wonderful scenery. At times it may feel like the film is too twee or artistic, but its takes on familiar genre tropes unveil further understanding about our world. The longing for connection and creating it out of nothing replaces the complicated mores of the old “love at first sight” method. It may be a temporary fix, but finding ways to make it last is the most exciting part about it. Just like the gorgeous cinematography that encapsulates the characters, the world is strange, and it is only going to change gradually into something different. The deeper question is how it will change us as well. How you interpret the film may very well answer that question.