The core concept of Spike Jonze’s exceptional new film Her – where a man falls in love with his operating system – is instantly recognisable to anyone perpetually plugged in to 21st century technology, thus spawning a few parodies of the film’s trailer both well-intentioned and filthy-minded. As soon as Joaquin Phoenix starts chatting to his artificial intelligence software named Samantha, voiced to sultry, velvety sophistication by Scarlett Johansson, there is no way a grown-up human being would resist thinking about online or phone sex. Staying up late, laying on your bed, talking to a disembodied Johansson, who speaks in purry, breathy dulcet tones as though in the middle of post-coital bliss, Jonze’s material provides such fertile ground for juvenile farce, which in the wrong hands could go terribly awkward and becomes nothing more than just a quick fumble with somebody on the other end of the virtual line. The genius of Her is that it rebuffs our own expectations as viewers and refuses to acquiesce to our unruly imaginations that in the film’s only sex scene, Jonze fades the entire screen to black. What we get instead is a few minutes of pure acoustic spectacle of two voices making love, where physical bodies become insignificant and the harmony of emotions become the real event.
The possibility of Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly, a lonely, slightly maladjusted man of the future, nurturing a romantic relationship with what is essentially a highly-developed, state-of-the-art version of iPhone’s Siri can elicit both laughter and incredulity, but Jonze’s screenplay is disarmingly earnest and keen to explore what makes love feel truly tangible. Less about plot and more about charting the evolution of romance, Her journeys through Theodore’s modern melancholia in a pastel-fashioned utopian society (the sprawl of Los Angeles meets the high-rising steels of Shanghai). A failed marriage and unfortunate dating attempts make way for his yearning for a virtual companion – a slightly simpler, more straightforward playmate with equal, if not more, intellectual capabilities than a human being and some sense of emotional veracity. Which leads us to Samantha, who is capable of so much more with her initial curiosity that soon transforms into a thinking individual’s ontological concerns.
She becomes a wholly convincing entity, a wish-fulfillment for Theodore’s melancholic existence. But as computer programmes go, they constantly evolve, prone to changes and updates. It’s the most remarkable aspect of Her, beautifully reflecting Samantha’s metamorphosis just the way any human being would. While always note-perfect in exploring human relationships, Jonze also wisely comments on our immense reliance on technology with a refreshing lack of pretension, carefully and ever-so-subtly transcending its subject matter to something more profound and perceptive. Samantha’s increasing independence and ability to satisfy her own intellectual desires is so abstractly human and simulated at the same time, only adding more heartbreak to Theodore.
Phoenix is more than capable of expressing longing and loneliness as an actor, but he has outdone himself here. The camera rests heavily on his presence, ceaselessly staring into the actor’s plethora of facial expressions, and yet not a single moment does he overplay. His is a beautifully understated performance, free from actorly histrionics, fleshing out Theodore as an emotionally fragile man willing to give relationships a go, even it means dating his computer. Johansson, meanwhile, has a more difficult job. To rely on vocal personality rather than star image, we hear Samantha through all-encompassing moods – curious, excitable, romantic, frustrated, furious, melancholic, yearning and sometimes even unsure of herself – an achievement Johansson pulls off incredibly, creating a character that has far more personality than most live actors you see onscreen. And together they create a conceptually artificial love that feel as real as any human relationship – with its ups and downs, the fluctuations inbetween, the rows, the make-up and break-up, and the glorious, maddening, brief, elusive, beautiful and heartbreaking experience of it all. If you do come out after watching this and not having felt you’ve witnessed a genuine love affair, then you probably need to see a shrink. You might have anhedonia, or something.
DIRECTOR: Spike Jonze | CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams | SCREENPLAY: Spike Jonze | DISTRIBUTOR: Entertainment Films | RUNNING-TIME: 126 mins | GENRE: Drama/Sci-fi | COUNTRY: USA