Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig | Written and Directed by Spike Jonze
At first glance Spike Jonze’s latest film Her may appear to be just a satirical enquiry at our current culture’s dependence and obsession with technology as it depicts a story of a not so distant future where a man falls in love with his phone operating system. However, that high concept is more of a relatable facet to hook you so it can delve into some deeper examinations, like where the validity of our relationships originates or the power of insightful communication.
Her is an ideal meshing as it is both a work seeped in commentary of our current culture while still being a timeless piece on the continuous evolution of the human experience and how we share it with one another. This intellectual query is wrought with bittersweet emotion that will cause you to fall in love with the world it so eloquently creates. Her shows that the creative spirit is very much alive and well.
In the film Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore a man seemingly adrift in life. Suffering from a recent bad breakup he is emotionally confused. Unable to let go of the relationship he once had he refuses to sign his divorce papers. He appears only emotionally available for people he has not met. His job as a personal letter writer has him constructing love letters for people who are unable to express their feelings. These letters he constructs sound as if the come from a place deep unapologetic truth as if he shares the feelings he is expressing. When the comfort of distance is removed his demeanor is more introverted almost as if the is forcing loneliness upon himself.
An answer for that loneliness appears with the latest highly advanced operating system. This new system is more than a personal assistant. It is a form of artificial intelligence that continues to evolve through new experiences. She (Johansson) names herself Samantha and begins to form a kinship with Theodore. Although she has no physical form she has human desires such as hopes, dreams, and even feelings. Theodore finds a form of happiness with Samantha he never knew was possible, and that happiness eventually blossoms into love.
High concept film’s breaking point lies in their believability. How do you make an audience buy the concept of a man not only falling in love with an operating system, but actually having a fully fleshed out relationship? For Her that believability begins with the magnificent world it creates. Films have depicted the future in many different ways; from hoverboards to flying calls to dystopian disasters. What is brilliant about this world is that its distance from the present is never fully defined. It could be occurring twenty years from now or one hundred. Either answer is just as legitimate.
The adjustments in the world are subtle but distinctive. High waisted pants, brightly monochromatic shirts, and the return of the shifty mustache feel like legitimate future reactions to the style of today. Architecturally the world feels spacious with high ceilings and limited walls, which give it a hallow feeling as most of that space goes unused. People appear isolated from one another, too wrapped up in their own technology to notice the world outside their own, like man emotionally falling into pieces on a subway step. The technology is unique in its structure. Its capabilities are outside our current parameters, but not too far from our grasps to lose reliability.
While the construction of this world was a key feature in making the movie work, the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson are what give it a genuine heart. Phoenix had a reclusive energy that would dissipate based on his comfort level. His genteel quality made him a warm presence, and his poetic soul gave him a soft edge. He was not without faults as he was emotionally unavailable when relationships became difficult, and was often guarded to protect himself from future heartache.
Although Scarlett Johansson never appears on screen her personality invigorates the film moment she first speaks. In fact this may end up being one of the best performances of her career. She shows an openness to her like never before. Her humor adds a great deal of levity, her curiosity in life feels sincere, and her sorrow is devastating to witness. She is a complete person, even without the body.
Johansson and Phoenix become two kindred spirits full of chemistry even though in reality they never spoke to one another. During filming Phoenix performed with Samantha Morton, but during post-production director Spike Jonez replaced her with Johansson. Fittingly the chemistry they share was artificially created.
In a way that aspect adds another layer to a script brimming with subtext. Nearly every scene is open to intricate analysis. Anyone who has shared a relationship can take away something different. Having a man fall in love with a computer was not just a clever ploy used for cheap sentiment. It allowed for something nearly impossible, a completely fresh look at the way humanity relates to one another. Aspects that we have come to accept like our wiliness to hurt those we love and how the smallest moments have the biggest impacts are viewed with fresh eyes.
Hoyte Van Hoytema cinematography was also vital in establishing the melancholic tone. The sun was almost always setting or rising which gave it this stunning glow. Light would reflect off floating dust particles to provide a shimmering ballet of splendor. Owen Pallett’s score added a rhythmic touch that encapsulated the atmosphere of each scene. The melodies combined futuristic tones with classical overtures to make one of the most unique scores of the year.
“Words cannot express my feelings” , is a common saying many of us have experience. Spike Jonez explored the other side of that equation when words are the only thing you have to express yourself. This is soothing exploration formed with earnest sentimentality. It will flex your intellectual muscle, caress your funny bone, provide a gentle tug on those heartstrings, yet it becomes truly masterful when it illustrates the devastation loss can bring. Watching Her is like watching love be redefined.