The great irony of today’s technologically advanced society is just how isolated our smart-phones, designed to foster interpersonal interactions, have left us. Walking along any city sidewalk, it’s easy to find individuals so absorbed in the glowing screens of their hand-held devices that all attempts by others to break through would prove utterly pointless. Soon, it seems, the day will arrive when people prefer the cold company of technology to the tangible comforts that only other flesh-and-blood individuals can provide. Spike Jonze’s latest effort, Her, unfolds in one of those quietly dystopian futures, where powerful technology has effectively destroyed the intimacy of human contact.
Jonze wraps his exploration of modern technology around one of the strangest romances ever to unfold on the big screen. Protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a professional letter-writer, who spends his days crafting beautiful notes for lovers too uninspired to pen them on their own. Shaken and miserable after a divorce, Theodore takes solace in fabricating ideal relationships from behind a desk. Out of sheer loneliness, he upgrades to a cutting-edge operating system, one which provides users with a highly sophisticated, user-specific A.I. interface. When he meets Samantha (Scarlett Johansson’s warm, sultry voice), Theodore finds himself falling desperately in love with the technology.
Jonze could have treated Her as a straight-up satire of the technology age, but the director doesn’t take that easy path. Thanks to Jonze’s loving direction, the film arrives both as an ode to the frighteningly high-speed world we inhabit and as a thought-provoking dissection of the same. Her has a lot on its mind, from sex to depression to longing to overpowering loneliness. It seems clear that the director’s goal is to explore something far larger than the advent of technology; Her is set up as an exploration of the very essence of what it means to be human.
Unfortunately, Jonze doesn’t balance his weighty ideas and lofty ambitions with the humor, zip and clarity that they require, at least not for the film’s entire length. After a very strong start, Her settles into a quiet groove that, while occasionally winning, fails to follow through on the concept’s initial promise.
That’s not to say that Her is a complete failure. Far from it. The film wins points for peppering its near-futuristic setting with truly interesting and plausible innovations. Curvaceous skyscrapers populate a Los Angeles clearly influenced by the Pudong district of Shanghai. Tiny ear-sets and slender phones allow people to wander the city streets in intimate bubbles, chatting away to their devices without ever encountering the people who stand directly beside them. Meanwhile, video games have become immersive experiences that respond to players with intelligent, often snarky observations. Jonze details a world that mirrors our own, but he adds a few innovations that drive home an intense feeling of isolation. The world of Her is not a clear dystopia; instead, it feels like the next, natural progression of today’s technology-obsessed reality.
Her also boasts three brilliant performances, from Phoenix, Adams and Johansson. Phoenix plays Theodore as a sympathetic, soft-spoken hero for our ages, an Everyman alienated from the world by the daunting prospect of superficial, technologically-enhanced connections. It’s a scary world out there, and for Theodore, who’s frozen in place after a gut-punch of a divorce, it’s simply easier to retreat into the simple pleasures of his smart-phone. When Samantha arrives on the scene, Theodore is understandably wonderstruck, and Phoenix invites us to share in his awe, as well as his fear and hesitation. Her initially positions Theodore as a hold-out, one of the last people on Earth who feels some trepidation about translating his entire life into images on a screen, but it also imagines him as one of the individuals perpetuating the same false intimacies that technology provides. He’s a profoundly damaged individual, and so Phoenix imparts heart-rending pain and trauma in every pause and sharply clipped sentence. Phoenix’s is a subtle, layered and sublimely heartbreaking performance, one that ranks among the strongest of the year.
In a smaller role, as Theodore’s harangued friend Amy, who designs video games and struggles to create documentaries in her spare time, Adams perfectly articulates the frustration and exhaustion of a woman looking for something genuine in another person. Like Theodore, she’s a lost soul, terrified by the both lack of real connections in her life and the prospect of searching for real ones in a seemingly endless world. Adams plays the part well, though many aspects of her character are left to the imagination as Jonze uses the film to focus almost entirely on Theodore.
All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the biggest revelation of Her: Johansson’s enchanting, disembodied performance. The actress’s intimate whispers and infectious laughs immediately validate Theodore’s infatuation. As Samantha, Johansson’s silky voice is alternately naive, seductive, eager, weary, manipulative and unnerving. Her chemistry with Phoenix is outstanding, particularly given that Johansson recorded her lines in post-production, long after the actor had left the set. She’s a fascinatingly complex creation, indicative of just how far technology has come but also of how unmistakably disconnected machines are from the messy reality of human existence. As Samantha explores the world through Theodore and adapts with surprising forcefulness, she appears not only as a symbol of human invention but also as a representation of new life, ushered into an infinite virtual landscape. Perhaps the most unsettling part of Samantha is how human she feels, more like an impressionable child born into Jonze’s high-tech future than a direct component of it.
Her neglects to ground its characters in any concrete reality, something that becomes increasingly clear in the film’s borderline-facile conclusion. Perhaps that’s the price that Jonze agreed to pay in order to deliver a gentle, poetic film about something as mysterious as technology’s effect on human emotion. Even though he doesn’t quite stick the landing, Jonze instead fills Her with deeply moving, softly whispered meditations on the nature of love.
Ultimately, Her is a stirring, saddening romance that suffers when it attempts to use its terrific concept to make tougher points about the alienating side of technology. The film’s early ambition deflates as Jonze zeroes in on a small cross-section of life in his film’s uncannily familiar setting, and that feels like a missed opportunity. Despite its clear imperfections though, Her stands as a strangely beautiful and thought-provoking exploration of how the constant ability to connect has left so many of us depressingly alone.
Wonderful performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson bring Spike Jonze's fanciful, strange sci-fi tale to vibrant life, though the film's delicate poetry prevents it from properly detailing the intriguing world it presents.