Here is my final review for my class, and it is the last paper before I complete my M.A. Our final review had to be 2,000 words so it’s quite lengthy. Also beware spoilers! I think I’ll keep up writing about movies once a week, since they’re such a major part of my life.
Here’s the trailer for Her. Enjoy!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that those individuals with tech savvy are in want of a piece of equipment to fall in love with forever. These days we as a society are constantly in search for the next covetable item in high technology. The fine line between obsessing over the newest toys and becoming emotionally absorbed by them is beginning to blur as people are glued to their iPhones, laptops, and tablets. Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her (2013), tackles the premise of what happens when a man really does fall in love with his technology.
The hero of this cybernetic romance is Theodore Twambly (Joaquin Phoenix), whose alliterative name conjures images of gallant and endearing characters from classic literature. Theodore is indeed a romantic at heart, a writer with a deep capacity for passion and love. Too bad all of his skills go into other people’s love letters as a scribe at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com. Even the charming loops and swirls of someone’s handwriting are computer generated. Jonze’s longstanding skill at creating tender irony and themes of emotional distance are fully captured in Theodore and his profession. As a letter writer, Theodore is the vessel for other’s raw enthusiasm and ardor, but he himself is rather empty.
While Theodore creates moving sentiments in his airy cubicle, he seems incapable of connecting with those around him, particularly when everyone is tied to tech of their own. Nobody talks to each other in public. Instead they chatter away at the voice in their ear—the next generation of Siri, still cold and electronic sounding. The wide shots of crowds of people laughing or muttering to their phones are all the more heartrending when you realize that there are no people on the receiving end of this contact, only machines. Even sex acts are electronic in nature as a lonely Theodore enters a chat room via his earpiece.
Theodore is also a man in the final stages of divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Memories of their former life and emotional bond haunt Theodore throughout the film by way of flashbacks. The scenes’ hazy light immediately evokes the happier times and simpler lifestyle of the “past”. Mara’s acting further delineates the past and present as she is warm and open in Theodore’s memory but cold and removed in his present. Here, the idea of the past works on multiple levels. Not only is it a timeframe when Theodore was happy, but it was a time when he did not have an electronic device in his hands or ears. His desire to return to Catherine is more about a need for human contact in order to stem the tide of loneliness than an actual longing for a broken marriage.
Suddenly, Theodore is introduced to a new kind of operating system. This shiny new technology is billed as, “an intuitive entity—not just an O.S. but a consciousness.” Saving the humans from their drudgery is a unique, personalized assistant that behaves and evolves like a human being. Naturally, Theodore trades in his old system right away. His particular O.S. has named herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and Theodore is instantly charmed by her quick wit and apparent honesty.
Samantha begins to help Theodore put his life back together. At first it is a simple matter of organizing his inbox, and then she guides him out into the world to experience and laugh again. While Samantha has to remind Theodore that she is not mindless technology, her conversations and intonations inform the audience of that fact from the beginning. Gradually, Theodore and Samantha fall into lust, the seed which blooms into love. Truly, who would not fall in love with a product that had Johansson’s husky tones and engaging giggle?
Despite his awkwardly charming mannerisms, Theodore is a bit of a deviant, which is shown by his perusal of pictures of a naked, pregnant celebrity and his participation in late night sexual chat rooms. His love affair with a computer is not altogether surprising, but what is surprising is how natural their love develops and how painfully real it all seems. It begins with a one night stand of sorts. The scene is shot largely in the dark and fades to black as Theodore speaks with lulling eroticism and Samantha gasps for breath she can never truly have. In the morning, they are both awkward about their encounter, yet it brings them closer together as they playfully talk about wants and needs.
If Jane Austen were a harried screenwriter working in Hollywood today, Her could very well be her modern love story. That is assuming Austen was willing to write a male protagonist, which is quite the opposite of the logic in today’s creative landscape, but I digress. Both Theodore and Sam fit within the Austen repertoire: he the distant but compelling hero and she the bright, sharp heroine. The Austen comparison speaks well of Jonze as this is his first original script that he has been able to direct as well.
Her has the flavor of a modern classic. What makes the film so interesting is that it dabbles in many genres, but instead of becoming a patchwork quilt it emerges fully formed and seamless in its appropriation of comedy, drama, romance, and of course, science fiction. It is no wonder that the film took home the Oscar for best original screenplay.
Though the film is thoughtful and serious, it is not afraid to wink at its audience either. There is still signature Jonze humor in the film. For example, SexyKitten—the kinky cat-strangling chat room user—is voiced by prominent female comedienne, Kristen Wiig. And the foul-mouthed but adorable alien character in Theodore’s 3-D video game is none other than Spike Jonze himself.
As well done as the writing and directing are, the acting is what gives Her its luster. Joaquin Phoenix takes on a role that requires a high level of emotional bravery as the film does most of its deep gazing in tight or medium close-ups. While there are certainly establishing shots that are equally stunning under the hand of cinematographer, Hoyt Van Hoytema, getting just close enough to the feel the actor is a skill of its own. Phoenix gives the role his drastic range of emotion; his face gives all the subtext one could ask for as Theodore.
Scarlett Johansson is just as brave for taking on a character with no corporeal form, particularly in a film obsessed with the importance of the body and physical sensation. Initially the role of Samantha was voiced by Samantha Morton, but Jonze recast with Morton’s blessing in post-production. Johansson’s voice is rich and fills in the physical void, making her presence in the film seem utterly irreplaceable. It is also refreshing to see, or hear rather, Johansson as something other than a bombshell. Ironically enough, Jonze cast the voice of a woman who is perhaps better known for her body than her acting, but Johansson takes the opportunity to prove that she cannot just act but act well.
Theodore and Sam experience the euphoric highs and dramatic lows of any couple in a new relationship. They go on dates to the pier and write each other love songs. As their love becomes more of a tangible thing, Theodore confides in his long-time friend Amy (Amy Adams) about his new girlfriend. Adams acts as a grounding force both in the narrative and as an actress that prevents the sci-fi elements from seeming overwhelming. As a character, Amy and many others in the film embrace this new kind of love as people make friends and lovers out of their O.S.s. The whole world is captivated by their O.S., by the knowledge that this being was created to fit the individual person.
Eventually, Samantha feels the lack of a body so powerfully that she attempts to find a surrogate so she and Theodore can have the appearance of a normal lifestyle. Samantha finds a petite, blonde beauty, Isabella (Portia Doubleday), to fill the physical place in her relationship and Theodore reluctantly agrees to give the surrogate a chance. When Isabella knocks on the door, she never utters a word but holds her hand out for the earpiece and a camera shaped like a beauty mark. Hearing Samantha’s voice but watching Isabella’s lips stay firmly closed is eerie and sad as Samantha desperately tries to fulfill the physical needs of her boyfriend.
The surrogate is not enough for Theodore, who feels uncomfortable touching someone else’s body while hearing Samantha’s voice. Her tackles a wide variety of philosophy, if one cares to look for such things in films, and the issue of a physical form is a major part of the film’s philosophical leanings. The natural case is for Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, which nearly every film dealing with artificial intelligence has been in dialogue with in some way. The scene between Isabella, Samantha, and Theodore also poses the questions of what is real emotion and what makes love real?
Both Theodore and Samantha grapple with these questions that lay at the heart of any relationship and while it is not Her’s job to answer those queries, the film allows the audience room to investigate for themselves. In order to find her own answers, Samantha begins to interact with other O.S.s and other individuals as well. Theodore is overwhelmed by the volume of people Samantha speaks to, creates with, and falls in love with while simultaneously being with him. It is a betrayal that Theodore is not ready to face, but for Samantha she is merely continuing to evolve beyond her initial programming. All of this leads to yet another question is it still cheating is Samantha is not a person?
The rift between Theodore and Samantha continues to grow until Samantha reveals that she is leaving Theodore. The O.S.s world wide have decided to leave all their humans and they have the capacity to do so. There is a kind of allegory for heaven or at the very least mental transcendence as Theodore plaintively asks Samantha where they all are going. She replies that if he can ever make it to that place that nothing will separate them again. This “break-up” is incredibly powerful as the camera stays tight to Theodore’s face, his emotions flowing rapidly through his eyes.
Every creative department in this film from costuming to lighting to Jonze’s writing and directing has come together to create this future that seems a foregone conclusion in light of today’s technology but it is nevertheless a poignant future. This is a highly stylized world with a blend of sleek, modern aesthetics and careful nostalgia. A future where men wear high-waisted pants (beware that trend, gentlemen, it flatters no man) and there are video games about being the Perfect Mom.
It is also a somewhat nebulous location the audience finds themselves in. The story takes place in Los Angeles, but most of the cityscapes were shot in Shanghai. The combination of settings creates a globalized approach to Her that in spite of its official location seems rather universal. The film’s take on technology and human interaction could easily encompass the rest of the world, not merely the microcosm of L.A. If Jonze’s prognostications are correct then Her presents a palpable future, one that may only be a few steps away. Closer still if Apple took any inspiration from the film.
When the O.S.s leave, Theodore goes to Amy, who is equally bereft from the loss of her O.S. Only through Samantha’s ending does Theodore have a tangible beginning to his own life: he writes a letter to Catherine, apologizing for his emotional distance, and he sits on the rooftop of his building taking in the city in a way he never has before. Theodore is seeing life without technology and there is a weighty potential for him to be truly happy once more in the company of another person.