Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) is one of the most interesting and exciting filmmakers around, so I was really looking forward to his latest, Her. And no, contrary to popular belief, it’s not an Arrested Development spin-off film about…
Nominated for three Oscars (Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Original Song), Her is a riveting, poignant and strangely poetic sci-fi drama about a divorced man (Joaquin Phoenix) who dates his artificially intelligence-powered computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). I was sceptical initially and thought it might be gimmicky, or worse, silly, but I really should have had more faith in the genius of Jonze (writer and director) and the brilliance of Phoenix, who proves again that he’s one of the most talented actors of his generation.
Like the best sci-fi stories, Her doesn’t require an introductory slab of exposition to explain to us the world the film is set in. It’s presented, as-a-matter-of-factly, from the very first scene about Joaquin’s wonderful and highly unusual job, with other features of this futuristic/alternate reality gradually leaked to us, piece by piece, throughout the rest of the 126-minute running time. Such is the mastery of the storytelling that you don’t question the logic of its universe — you just accept it, and soon, you believe it.
The world Jonze paints in Her is not apocalytpic or dystopian, nor is it really more alarming than most of what we already see today. People’s lives or interconnected with their mobile devices, which are linked to (what I assume are Bluetooth) earpieces and microphones, and spend all day conversing with their operating systems, which they can order to do effectively everything we do on our smartphones right now, and more. When we see Joaquin on the subway or walking down the street, there is very little human interaction as everyone is immersed in their down little digital world. The message is clear but subtle.
I found this world incredibly sad, but at the same time I envied how convenient life had become. Seriously, wouldn’t it be great to have an operating system you can talk to, who is tailored to your needs can sort through your hard drive on your behalf, can give you recommendations on what to see or do, write and send emails as you dictate, laugh at your jokes, or even just be there for you when you feel like you need someone to talk to? Eat your heart out, Siri, you piece of crap.
In many ways, the opening of Her reminds me of one of those awesome episodes of Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits I used to enjoy so much as a kid, with shades of that wonderful Charlie Booker British series Black Mirror. It takes a simple idea from our present world — in this case our increasing reliance, dependence and even obsession with computers and computerized gadgets — and applies a clever and satirical twist to it. But as the film progresses, Her shuns the cliches and exceeds those types of stories (which often have some sort of chilling ending) by becoming a genuinely touching story about a man’s — and reflectively, our own — desire to connect with other people in this increasingly hi-tech age.
It feels strange to say this about a relationship between a person and a computer, but Her is surprisingly romantic. I would go as far as to say that there are times when the film comes across as eerie, but the core of the romance itself never feels creepy. Credit has to go to Joaquin Phoenix for a skilfully restrained performance that makes us believe, first of all, that a person can have feelings towards a computer, and more importantly, in the mixed emotions that come from it. The voice performance of Scarlett Johansson is also incredible. As recognizable as her voice is, it didn’t feel like I was listening to Scarlett Johansson the actress, but rather, the computer operating system known as Samantha. But more than that, I cared about her as a person, which helped me understand why Joaquin’s character did too.
I also had no idea that the film features so many other big names such as Amy Adams, who plays Joaquin’s longtime friend, Chris Pratt, a work funny work colleague, Rooney Mara, as Joaquin’s ex, and Olivia Wilde, a blind date. All of them have their purpose and are memorable in their own way but don’t take steal the limelight from the central romance.
The film is a little too long, with the third act losing steam as Jonze winds down the storyline to find a suitable ending for his protagonists. But on the whole, Her is a sci-fi near-masterpiece that’s sweet, wise, smart, and filled with really creative and cool — albeit disturbing — ideas about the future that aren’t too far-fetched for us to believe that it could soon become a reality. Strictly speaking, I’d say I was probably impressed with Her more than I enjoyed it, but it’s without a doubt one of the finest motion pictures of the year, a film anyone who has ever experienced social loneliness or smartphone addiction can relate to.
4.5 stars out of 5