Saturday, 15 February 2014

Film Review: Her (2013)

Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson and Olivia Wilde

I’ve seen Her twice now. The first time I watched it was so moved that I didn’t want to write a review until I’d seen it at least once more. I thought the film was operating on a different level in its depiction of love, loss, and what it means to have a connection with someone compared to anything else I’d seen for many years; moreover, I couldn’t recall a film on a similar subject which made me feel the unbridled emotions I felt when watching this.

Three weeks later, in time for the UK release, I watched it again and if anything I like this film even more. Her has a grip on me which I can’t shake, and don’t much want to either. Maybe it’s because I saw a bit of myself in the lead character of Theodore (Joaquin Pheonix) at one time or another, and have been able to relate to his feelings in this story. Isn’t that what can make cinema so powerful, though? Actors and film makers we’ll (probably) never know combine to make something which speaks to us so profoundly.

Director and writer Spike Jonze begins his film, set in a future not too dissimilar from where we’re heading today, with Theodore at work; his company anonymously writes letters on behalf of other people, be that love letters, thank you letters, or letters of condolence. As long as there is something to say, Theodore can write it. In this future humanity has become so divorced of interaction that we hire others to convey our most personal thoughts and emotions, presumably because we’re all too busy with interacting virtually. One only needs to think of Facebook and Twitter and the culture of clicking a button to express emotion to see where Jonze gets his inspiration.

Theodore, and seemingly everyone one in the city, is never without his mobile device. Email is read and deleted with voice control as Theodore skips past financial and news alerts but tellingly, chooses to see picture of a celebrity’s nude pregnancy photos. He spends his nights playing virtual reality games alone in his darkened apartment and in voice chatrooms having phone sex with equally lonely and lost people. He is also in the final stages of divorce and this is his life now. Life doesn’t always go as planned, even when it seems the perfect moments will stay perfect forever.

Then Theodore buys a new operating system, but this being the future the technology has moved on from what we know today. In Her, discussions with computers and OS’s is the norm but this new one describes herself as “an intuitive entity... not just an OS but a consciousness” and soon Theodore has a new connection in his life. I say connection because Samantha, as the OS names herself in 2/100th of a second after Theodore asks her if she has a name, is not human and has no body and never needs air or water to survive, but is more than just a OS, at least to Theodore. That is what, I believe, life is about; connections. The way we connect with others shapes out feeling towards them and from that feeling can evolve love. Love for a friend, love for a parent, love for girlfriend/wife/life partner.

The fact that Theodore and his OS begin a relationship sounds, on the surface, like pure fantasy and science fiction. Maybe it is, but in Jonze’s picture the relationship is as real as any I’ve seen in a film, despite never seeing the two partners together. The dialogue Jonze has written sounds unusually real considering the subject matter, and by ‘real’ I mean he perfectly captures the way people talk when they are friends, at work, or in love and the way Theodore speaks to his OS is the same as he speaks to a human. In writing this way, Jonze very easily allows us to believe a relationship between a man and his OS can exist for the failure to do so would render the emotional scenes which follow redundant. “I feel as though I’ve felt everything I’m ever going to feel” he tells her in an early scene, but with Samantha he is feeling something entirely new, and even though Theodore sometimes questions himself over the legitimacy of their relationship, he cannot deny his connection to her.

Like most relationship dramas, we know the relationship is going to get tested but in Her Jonze gives his characters new barriers to overcome. I especially liked the notion of surrogate sexual partners who want to be part of a relationship between a human and an OS; in this future it is not an unusual service for a woman to have sex with a man as the embodiment of his OS because their relationship is “pure”. The ethical challenge this represents to Theodore cements his feeling for Samantha but questions whether the two can ever be as one. I also liked the satire of a woman following the progress of someone else’s relationship online, from afar; “I’ll always love you guys” she tells Theodore.

The addition of Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) allows him to experience real human interaction, the sort he’s been missing for a long time since his marriage fell apart. Jonze ensures Amy’s dialogue with Theodore is different to that with Samantha; they talk about break ups, arguments over shoes, life being too short to ponder on mistakes, and just saying ‘fuck it’. With Samantha, they begin to argue over her rapid evolution which brings to light the massive canyon between their natural states of mind and a big reveal which I won’t spoil here but one which hits hard.

Jonze’s directorial style for his film is entirely complimentary to his screenplay. He uses many techniques which could come across as tired and clich├ęd but the marriage of visuals and dialogue leads the film to be sad, joyous, amusing, romantic, and often heartbreaking. His decision to fade to black when Theodore and Samantha first ‘have sex’ is clever because he only allows us to hear what is happening, and it sounds like two humans engaging in carnal activities.

Joaquin Phoenix continues to show why he is The Best Actor of His Generation™ with a range of many emotions, often holding the screen on his own because Samantha is only heard and never seen. The expressions on Phoenix’s face are the same as I think I would show if I were experiencing his emotions; that is to say I connected with his performance the way I seldom do with performances in relationship dramas. There is one scene in where the two are literally disconnected as Samantha is updating but this is unbeknownst to Theodore and the panic of losing her is real. No one wants to lose their love, especially when they’ve felt that pain before. As Theodore runs to get a connection, Joaquin Phoenix makes us believe we’re seeing a man scared of losing what he has got.

Of course no review of Her could not mention the voiceover work of Scarlett Johansson as Samantha; she brings this OS to life with carefully affected speech sometimes slightly rushed in a enthusiastic copy of what humans might say. There is undeniable chemistry between Samantha and Theodore, something so often lacking in other romantic films and Johansson deserves all the plaudits she has been getting.

Stop thinking for yourself: This review is only skimming the surface of Her. There is so much more to discuss, so much more to experience than I can ever describe to you here. It has touched me both as a film lover and as human being, and there is no greater compliment I can give.

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