Her (2014)

Info SidebarAt times, Her looks and feels like a glorified music video. Indeed, its director Spike Jonze made a name for himself in the music industry long before making his film debut with Charlie Kaufman’s cinematic Rubik’s Cube, Being John Malkovich. It lingers on details. It plays around with focus as if juggling camera lenses. It looks soft to the touch, and has an effervescent glow. It moves slowly. It takes its time to tell its story. But then when it tells its story, it gets a little caught up in the novelty of its idea and forgets how to breathe.

The idea is great, that must be said. Jonze has created a world here that places every human being inside a bubble, completely sealed off from the rest of humanity. For all you introverts out there, how relieving must it be to know that you can find a friend in your computer? And I don’t mean finding a friend in your computer who lives in Finland. I mean finding a friend in your computer who lives in your computer. Imagine that. Imagine never being alone. Ever. Your computer talks to you. It thinks. It responds intuitively. It grows and matures, and it jokes with you. It can even orgasm with you.

What Jonze has done here is an exercise of foresight and style. Foresight because he can clearly see where society will end up in twenty-odd years. Technology is fast replacing human interaction. Last time, we used to call someone up and arrange a date. We’d go on that date and be completely absorbed by the other person. For those few hours, we were each other’s. Today, we don’t even call anymore. We face a computer screen and type words. And then when we go on the date, we are pampered with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc, which act as safety nets for when the evening goes sour. What is the point of dating anymore?

Her has an answer. It follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonesome but cheerful guy who works at a letter-writing company. What exactly is a letter-writing company? It’s for all those inarticulate star-crossed lovers who are either too busy or too lazy to write their own letters to their loved ones. They call up this company and hire one of its many writers to compose letters and send them off to whomever. Theodore has been at it for so long, and has helped so many people that he knows all their little tricks and habits before their lovers do.

He’s in the midst of a divorce. The marriage was a lovely one, but something turned rotten along the way. He goes home, plays his video game, has phone sex (ear piece sex?) with anonymous partners who sound an awful lot like Kristen Wiig, and sleeps. Alone and empty. He has a friend from college, Amy (Amy Adams), who works as a game designer and developer. Together they traverse Jonze’s future world with a comfortable ease as they enter what is to be a new era for modern computers.

Enter, OS One, an operating system that works like Siri on steroids, if Siri could take steroids and learn as she grew. The system, apart from running your computer, can speak to you, not like Siri does now, but like how your girlfriend or boyfriend or best friend does. Full conversations. Real conversations. The voice is Samantha, and she is proof that you don’t need a body or a face to ooze raw sexuality. She is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and never has she sounded more attractive. Theodore takes a liking to her, and vice versa. They begin a rapport. They grow close. They share jokes and secrets and thoughts. They fall in love.

What Her is good at is posing questions of morality and ethics with this kind of interaction. How much of what Samantha says and thinks is real? When she shares an orgasm with Theodore, what is she really feeling? Is she merely simulating the motions and the sounds? How can she love him if she cannot feel? Maybe she can feel. But how would she ever convey those feelings? There is a wonderful scene in Her that tries to answer this question. It involves a surrogate sexual partner who wants so badly to involve herself in Theo’s and Sam’s relationship that she’s willing to have intercourse free of charge. Sounds like bliss doesn’t it? But Jonze and Phoenix handle the situation so delicately that the idea turns from arousing to disgusting, and we completely understand why. Love — and lust — as it turns out, requires more than a physical being; it requires that mutual zing that’s not easy to come by.

Phoenix is a truly gifted actor. He has the instinctive ability to feel for a character’s vulnerable spots and exploit them for the benefit of those around him. He has a partner, but she isn’t there, yet he is completely convincing as a man discovering true love for the first time. How many of us have explored the realm of online dating? The number grows I’m sure. We’d like a Samantha in our lives. Sure, her realism is a little unsettling, and she reminds me a lot of HAL, but she’s a friend. Now, friend or not, there are parts about her existence that don’t click, and Jonze seems to forget that she is, first and foremost, an operating system. For instance, if she were to break up with Theodore acrimoniously, I can’t expect the customer service department being too sympathetic with Theodore’s sudden inability to use his computer. And what if the break up persuades her to become a malicious hacker? Would that be considered a manufacturing defect? And if she’s individualised to suit Theodore’s personality, why does she also communicate to thousands of others?

Surely there are many viewers out there who have all the answers, and maybe I need to watch the movie again to understand them. Her, nevertheless, is expertly made. It looks great. It poses interesting questions and makes us reflect on our own society. But the very thing that makes it also breaks it. Jonze’s screenplay is strong conceptually. Realistically, it’s porous. And it takes in water quickly.


Best Moment | The surrogate scene. Disturbing, sexy, awkward, brilliant.

Worst Moment | Nope.

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