Her: the next generation of romantic drama

Robert Phythian praises Spike Jonze’s Her for its heart and its singular vision of a familiar future.

 

The latest offering from the wonderful and varied mind of Spike Jonze is something to behold. It is a ponderous exploration of love and technology punctuated by a well-conceived backdrop of an ethereal Los Angeles futurescape.

Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an introverted man in the latter stages of a reluctant divorce.  The ever-forlorn Twombly, whose bleak life is reinforced by flashbacks of his happier, married past, purchases a new, artificially intelligent operating system for his phone and computer. He chooses to give it a female voice, it calls itself Samantha, and a romance quickly blooms between machine and man.  As the carbon-computer chip relationship grows, so does the sense of relatable unease.

Phoenix excels here. So much of the film is dedicated to extreme close ups of his face during conversations with Samantha. His subtle and realistic reactions to Samantha’s voice draw us into their relationship, a cold conversation with a chat machine suddenly becomes so much more.  His high waistline and strange moustache are not Jonze’s idea of fashion in the not too distant future, and this contributes to the vision of a man who is depressed and socially reclusive.

Theodore, for the most part, has to be the face of two halves of a conversation. This not to say that Scarlet Johansson’s husky, seductive tones go unnoticed: she voices Samantha with passion and a hint of electronic disconnection. Despite her lack of physical presence, this is one of Johansson’s most endearing roles to date.

A brief mention has to be given to Amy Adams, who plays Theodore’s friend and co-worker. Adams rarely plays depressive characters, and her low-key role as a young woman skeptical towards love and lost in her own skin was touchingly performed.

A few clunky trailer shots of Twombly giggling into his phone and awkwardly implementing it into a double date sometimes draws the audience out of the key theme of loneliness that is at the heart of the film. Towards the end of Her, some of the more absurd elements of the story come into focus, but never close enough to question the film’s legitimacy.

The mildest of gripes aside, this is Spike Jonze’s masterpiece. As both writer and director, he has a rich history of creating worlds that are fundamentally surreal yet utterly recognizable. From the half-height office in Being John Malkovich to the fantasy world of Where The Wild Things Are, Jonze’s world-building powers are rarely matched.  The strange city that isn’t quite our own contributes vitally to the film’s prescient message.

Deep attention has been given to the detail of the backdrop in regards to fashion, infrastructure and even the social outlooks of the characters. This story of artificially intelligent love takes place in the background of the film as well as in the fore.  The implications of the film’s premise reverberate in the periphery of everything we see.

The most impressive mark of the film is the questions it manages to raise. What is a relationship? What makes a person? What is love? These questions are conveyed delicately, without pretensions or gimmicks. Her is a true romantic drama, set in a future that is alarmingly close to our present.

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