Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is recently separated from his wife of several years, Catherine (Rooney Mara). They grew up together, and, as flashbacks suggest, were very much soul mates. But things changed and now Theodore is alone. He is a sensitive, introverted man. He works for a website writing personal letters for people who don’t have the time to craft intimate words to one another, making a living out of putting himself intuitively into other people’s worlds. The year is not determined, but it’s sometime in the near future. High waistlines are definitely back in style.
Then one day Theodore decides to upgrade the operating system for his home computer; installing the newly released OS1; an artificial intelligence which can travel with him wherever he goes and communicate with him via earpiece. One of the first things it asks him is whether he would prefer a male or female persona for his A.I. He chooses a female one. It names itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson).
Theodore and Samantha enjoy each other’s company, and pretty soon the nature of their interactions grow emotionally complicated. Samantha becomes more than just an ingenious new piece of tech; his relationship with ‘her’ becomes the most important in his life…
Her is the latest film from imaginative wunderkind Spike Jonze, whose previous film credits read like a roster of Hollywood’s most creative adventures of the last 15 years; Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are. Previously he has worked closely with feted screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York). And while Where The Wild Things Are was an adaptation of a beloved children’s book, Her sees him breaking out with a work of his own devising.
It’s a typically quirky, soulful affair. As previously, Jonze anchors his film with an insecure, fragile individual. Theodore wears his heart on his sleeve, described by a blind date (Olivia Wilde) as being ‘like a puppy’. One senses a lot of Jonze in Twombly; an insular, bookish daydreamer, most comfortable with his own thoughts. Her feels like an open and honest depiction of a particular type of man, and Jonze is as frank about his good points as he is about his flaws.
Scarlett Johansson replaced Samantha Morton at the eleventh hour. To her enormous credit, it’s impossible to tell. She imbues the disembodied voice of Samantha with rich and nuanced characteristics. Left with nobody to interact with, a significant portion of the film is left on Phoenix’s shoulders. He handles it admirably, underplaying; an inversion of the far more physical approach to creating a character that we saw last year in The Master. In many ways his work here is just as impressive because of how restrained it is, yet still matching the emotional availability that Theodore requires.
The many long scenes of Theodore and Samantha conversing at home, on trains or in the office feel as though they skip along, so deft is the editing, so wryly amusing is the screenplay. Her runs for a full two hours, and, though leisurely paced, rarely feels slow or directionless. The developing relationship between Theodore and Samantha is absorbing and – strangest of all – completely believable.
But then what Jonze has done here is what some of the most successful science fiction has always managed to do; by pushing aspects of present-day society to the next logical conclusion he presents us with a reflection of ourselves. You only have to take a cursory look around in public to see how technological advances are isolating us from one another. Everyone’s tuned into their mp3 players, running their fingers across their touch-screens, downloading the latest app. Her takes the strange emotional fulfillment that this provides and develops it to a point where a relationship with a piece of software is a very possible lifestyle choice.
It gives Her a subtly sinister undertone, one which becomes more pervasive as Samantha evolves faster than Theodore can ever hope to. And as captivating as their relationship is, Jonze peppers the film with moments that sting with an undercurrent of concern. In the peripheries of Theodore’s befuddled lifestyle one senses a society of recluses, neutered from interactions with one another, preferring the relative safety of something synthesised (see Theodore’s job).
And so, sneakily, what at first seems like a screwy twist on the rom-com format becomes a serious essay on the nature of not just ourselves, but of what love even is; how much of it is a projection of self, what is required from love, where it’s limits are… Jonze’s film is extremely provocative, yet feels as light as air. This is partly down to the sublime production design. Jonze’s near-future is as sleek and as minimalist as a GAP advert; an airy, affluent place that gleams with white, offset by rich pastel inflections. Theodore’s shirts burn warmly, making him the beating heart in his neat, clean surroundings.
Jonze sets up a kindred spirit for Theodore in Amy (Amy Adams), but doesn’t push the obvious angle that Theodore may learn to love a real person and consign Samantha to the recycling bin on his desktop. I was expecting this course, connecting Her in my mind to the similarly themed Lars And The Real Girl. And while there is still a certain inevitability to Her‘s trajectory, it was far more heart-warming to see Jonze devote time to other concerns; a section of the film in which Samantha introduces a physical surrogate into their relationship presents yet further questions of how complicated such virtual partnerships could prove to be.
Jonze presents us a future in which gender, sexuality and their importance are arbitrary, and in Theodore he shows us, in some ways, how that could be a wonderful, liberating thing. If I’ve made Her sound like a thesis instead of a rich, warm, funny, delightful viewing experience, then I’ve done the film a disservice. Yes, there is a chilliness to Her, a suggestion that we may be heading down a road without quite realising the destination, but there’s also the irresistible fire of love and imagination at work here, making this a graceful and touching film to put on your must-see list.