Review: “Her”

If we didn’t have the internet or any computer technology, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. If you wanted to know my opinion on movies, you’d have to ask me in person, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Instead, you get to read however much you want, and stop when you’re bored. (Hopefully you’ve made it this far.)

At the same time, without all of the technology we live with today, you might be hanging out with people in real life at this exact moment, instead of staring at a screen reading my stupid thoughts. You might be having fun, instead of having…whatever experience this is for you.

The disorganized yet potent point I’m trying to make can essentially be boiled down to ‘we have a complicated relationship with technology, and in turn, it complicates our lives with other people.’ Sometimes we are so caught up in our Facebooks and Snapchats and Twitters and Tinders that we may not even realize that the very act of communication, a key part (some might argue the key part) of humanity, is changing — and we are changing with it.

Spike Jonze’s new movie Her has been billed as a love story, but really it’s a story about communication, one that is distinctly relevant to all of us in 2014. You don’t have to be in love with your phone for the film to directly relate to your life. Though in a way, we have all fallen in love with our technology…

…Not like Joaquin Phoenix, though. His character, the antisocial divorcee Theodore Twombly (rolls off the tongue) gets a new operating system and promptly falls in love with its artificial intelligence Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson (so who can blame the guy?) And she loves him back, something I’m still trying to get Siri to learn. What follows are the challenges that would ‘naturally’ occur when somebody has a relationship with a disembodied voice.

Spike Jonze gets better as a director in every film he makes. Her cements Jonze as having an identifiable visual style, one in which images are tied directly to vivid emotions and feelings of paradoxically ‘unfamiliar nostalgia.’ It is his most colorful film thus far, and the visual imagination he imbues his world with is on par with his work on Where The Wild Things Are.

Her is more of a sci-fi film than the trailers make it out to be. We are introduced to a futuristic Los Angeles, where everyone is talking into little earpieces that read them their news and e-mails, the downtown L.A. haze has gotten worse, and video games eavesdrop on conversations. Jonze’s film is a gentle variation on social satire through the lens of science fiction, much like the books of Kurt Vonnegut. Like those, Her is full of hilarious details that are sometimes absurd but sometimes uncomfortably believable given the exponential growth of technology.

The cast is exceptionally good at getting viewers to buy into this near-future world, which at times seems cartoonish in tone. Of course, Johannson and Phoenix are the most impressive, having to portray a deeply intimate relationship despite neither of them performing with the other at the same time, but Amy Adams and Rooney Mara (who I guess is the go-to actress to play love interest to a character who has communication issues and is obsessed with computers) do excellent work as well.

Jonze has always excelled at delivering piercing emotional moments, and despite an abnormally liberal dose of goofy humor, Her is no different. I teared up at one point, something that only one other film (12 Years a Slave) accomplished in all of 2013. Phoenix and Jonze make Theodore’s loneliness feel painfully real and universally understandable. Even though Samantha is a computer, you can’t help but feel happy for the two of them when they connect. You want their strange, unnatural relationship to work out, even when it seems doomed from the start. 

This is Jonze’s first feature written by him, and it is not nearly as focused or refined as his previous projects. The premise feels like it would come from his collaborator Charlie Kaufman (who wrote his first two films), but Kaufman knows how to utilize concepts in ways that nobody would think of but make perfect sense. Jonze, on the other hand, takes the plot in a few interesting ways, but it ultimately ends up unsatisfying, with abrupt plot developments towards the end that just aren’t that well-developed.

I’ll put it this way: Her begins as a stinging satire and ends as a cliched romance film that just happens to be between a man and his operating system.

Jonze has a lot to say about love, communication, and alienation and how all of that is complicated by our increasing dependence on technology. But his script,  which at times is able to deliver an emotional gut punch by sheer force of the poetic dialogue Phoenix delivers, is full of grand claims about love and the human need for connection that don’t always feel connected to the plot at hand. In addition, many elements are predictable from the moment they are introduced, extinguishing the element of surprise that was so crucial in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

Her’s script may be problematic, but there are enough layers to it that not only would I recommend it, I’d recommend re-watching it as I intend to do. There are many ways from which to view the romance: is it a take on long-distance relationships in a world of Skype? Is it a meditation on the ways in which technology both alienates and connects simultaneously?

Or is it about how technology allows for avenues for that essential human desire to connect with others? This angle certainly resonated with me. As I sit here writing this, I can’t help think about the implications the film has for this very blog. Am I writing this for my own creative sake, or is it just to be noticed by as many people as possible? If so, would that make me selfish? Or would it just make me human?

I urge you to experience the film, not just because it’s funny and beautiful, but because it is relevant to pretty much everyone. It may be messy, disorganized, and sometimes even pretentious (the dreaded p-word), but it’s undeniably worth it.

Her will give you a lot to think about, even if it doesn’t always do so in the most effective ways.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

-Sam

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