Released 2014. Written and directed by Spike Jonze. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams.
Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze, is a curious film. It’s intriguing, smart, heartfelt and, for the most part, engrossing. It’s off-kilter and quirky in just the right way. But as a satire, it didn’t have much to say. As a drama, it failed to move me. And it really loses its way towards the end.
But before we get to that, I want to talk about what there is to like about Her. And there’s a lot to like.
In a fabulous opening shot (that I don’t wish to describe for fear of ruining), we meet Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a forty-ish, awkward man with a strong Selleck adorning his upper lip. He’s undergoing a drawn-out divorce. He earns his money writing love letters for the paying clients of BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, and spends his nights playing videogames and engaging in phone sex with strangers. He looks chipper to his colleagues and neighbours, but he’s a lonely guy. In other words, everyone can identify with him. (At least I hope it’s not just me.) Hearing of a new operating system for his computer, one that features an artificial intelligence, he buys it, installs it, and meets Samantha. A capable computer and surprisingly deep conversationalist, delicately and seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha makes you truly believe that one day you will have an excuse for having sex with your laptop. Theodore, almost without realising it, develops an attraction to Samantha, and before long they’re officially pursuing a romantic relationship.
Spike Jonze is nothing if not capable of recognising the comic potential of a weird situation, and despite the fact that Her would most comfortably be categorised as a romantic drama, the film’s most enjoyable and memorable moments are comic rather than dramatic in nature. There’s a lot of comedy to be wrung out of Theodore, initially awkwardly but later comfortably, informing his friends (and ex-wife) that his new girlfriend is an OS. His self-consciousness at the unorthodox, potentially transgressive feelings he has for Samantha is played equally for drama and laughs. Outside of the central relationship, his regular interactions with technology are beautifully judged for situational comedy, with a dejected Theodore, early in the film, telling his mp3 player to “play melancholy song”; when it responds with a song that begins, “When you know you’re gonna die…”, he simply responds, “play different melancholy song”. (And of course, when in doubt you could always have your protagonist play a videogame featuring a cute little cartoon character with an incredibly foul mouth.)
If the joke of skipping to a song with just the right level of melancholy sounded a little too relatable to our life today, there’s a good reason for that. In fact, with the exception of Samantha, the technology in Her is not so very different from ours at all. It responds a damn sight better to voice commands (and everyone is apparently content to mutter to themselves in public all day), but that’s it. The world of Her is a caricature of our own but it doesn’t need to be an outlandish one, and that helps to ground the film. While wacky, it isn’t affected or irritating, but restrained, its world intersecting with ours at an acute angle. It’s clearly a sci-fi premise, and although it doesn’t give any power to the idea of having a relationship with a computer – because the sophistication of the tech is far beyond what Apple’s managed to do with Siri – it’s not a big leap to make, and combined with the convincing aesthetic design of Her’s world, our setting is a satisfying near-future society (‘near-future’ meaning, as always, ‘it’s the same as now except we’re allowed to play a bit’).
For an hour and a half, Her is fairly enjoyable, and occasionally fantastic. While it is a chronological story, it has a flavour of a series of sketches, with some scenes effectively self-contained set-pieces (wandering around a mall talking about strangers; relaxing on a beach; playing videogames) in which Theodore and Samantha can freely interact, allowing their understanding of each other to develop and their relationship to become natural. Almost everything is interesting, and Phoenix does a terrific job carrying it all, as we’re very often treated to long-take close-ups of his face chatting away to the disembodied Samantha and nothing more. Just as he did in Being John Malkovich (1999), Jonze takes ideas to their logical, absurd conclusions, most notably in the bedroom: Samantha and Theodore’s ‘sexual intercourse’ is essentially phone sex until one day Samantha brings a woman into Theodore’s home in order to provide a physical body that she can pretend is her own. Again, it’s a situation that’s not really anything more than a set-up that’s allowed to play out, but it’s also like an experiment, as though if he doesn’t test all the possibilities and permutations of his underlying premise, Jonze is letting that premise, the audience, the school and, most importantly, himself, down.
Speaking of taking ideas to absurd conclusions, as we get to the issues with the film, the final thirty minutes of Her are, one might kindly phrase it, a risk. I don’t wish to spoil the plot developments that rankle, but suffice to say that they come across as poorly thought-out and purposeless. The film has, until this point, been a sensible if light comic drama, but here it takes a sharp turn and tries to wring tears from us – unfortunately, not only are the plot machinations at this point odd to an alienating degree, but the relationship has never at any point felt real, so the dramatic turn has no purchase. It’s not been for lack of effort. Jonze is fully committed to convincing us of the reality of this relationship, but I never believed in it, and I certainly don’t think that any attentive audience member could be forgiven for thinking that it would end happily. Perhaps it’s inevitable that there’s no satisfying way to end a film about a relationship that’s a near-impossibility to truly buy into. Regardless, it’s also an issue that the film lulls quite badly here, limping towards its conclusion. It’s a shame that, after ninety minutes of fairly interesting, charming and fun happenings, when getting serious the film begins to falter.
However, Her suffers from a more fundamental problem and it’s this: Its surface mechanics both imply thematic depth and mask thematic shallowness. That is to say, Her’s internal logic is entirely consistent. Once you’ve accepted the premise that artificial intelligence is sufficiently advanced as to create virtual people indistinguishable from real humans except for their lack of corporeal form, nothing is out of place. Everyone acts as you might well imagine they would in this world. Functionally, it’s very tightly constructed. Her’s thematic underpinnings, on the other hand, are all over the place.
Her should be thematically rich, and in a sense, it is. The film approaches questions of humanity’s relationship with increasingly intrusive technologies; the use of technology to augment or replace human functions, both mental and biological; what love means and whether it is an emotion only humans can experience, as well as for what (other than humans) it is possible to feel it; the way in which technology that ostensibly draws us together only serves to make us feel more alone. While some of these ideas are broad, others are subtle and Her deserves significant credit for managing to articulate them. Sadly, despite (or perhaps due to) such an abundance of ideas, the film is thematically totally incoherent. Rather than combining or relating in any notable way, the film’s ideas feel disparate, regardless of how closely related they may genuinely be to each other. They’re conspicuous by the ease with which one can isolate them. You’re not blown away by their intricate entanglement; rather, it feels as though each theme is given a moment or two to express itself, sometimes for only seconds within a larger scene. Exacerbating this is the disappointing fact that the film isn’t bursting at the seams with things to say. I didn’t come away feeling challenged or intellectually stimulated. There’s little that the film appears to have a strong conviction about, and little that’s original. And while it feels slightly churlish to berate a film for not having an original thought about a concept so obsessed over by humanity as love, it is fair to feel let down that a film about love doesn’t actually appear to care much about the subject. Her isn’t unyielding to examination – on the contrary, it’s really rather simple to dissect, and sadly it’s far too easy to feel you’ve managed to divine everything it has to say. Was I expecting too much? I hope not. I don’t want to stop expecting great things from proven filmmakers tackling exciting subjects, but it truly never feels as though Jonze was interested in the big questions raised by his premise. I said the film approaches the questions – it barely if at all wants to answer them.
In a word, Her is thin. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s superficial, but for all the enchantment and promise on the surface, it’s sad that it’s so fruitless when given some attention. It doesn’t please to me to say it at all, as it’s a genuinely joyous experience, but it could have been even more.