Saturday, January 18, 2014

Her: Do you love your phone? Can you? Do you want to?

Movie Review: Her

Director: Spike Jonze

Reviewed: 12 January 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ****

The preciously named Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) sports an old-timey mustache, high-waisted pants, lives in a futuristic apartment with a to-die-for view, and works at a greeting card company that specializes in handwritten personal letters. People tell him what the occasion is and he researches and creates an original composition just for them. He's very good at his job; for some customers, he's been writing their letters for years and knows them better than maybe they know themselves (or has created a version of them through these letters that embodies who they wish to be). It is deeply funny, audacious way to open the new film Her, and Spike Jonze showcases color-saturated office buildings, shining like jewels, textures all over the place despite omnipresent computer screens. Theodore is captured playing intricate adventure video games, walking alone, riding in elevators, and staring out from his perch at the world. He has been through a painful break-up with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) who haunts him in flashbacks; he has an absent friendship with college friend Amy (Amy Adams) enduring her own relationship strains. He finds himself intrigued by a new OS system that he befriends. Her name is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and she speaks to a world of great efficiency and little privacy, rifling through every email that he has written for the past few years, noticing Theodore's divorce papers have not yet been signed, and accompanying him whenever he wants companionship. Companionship turns to friendship turns to dating, calling into question what are the definitions of a relationship. Is it real? Does it feel real? Phoenix appears in every scene in the film, and the nature of the concept means that although he interacts with Johansson verbally, he remains front and center, often alone in the film. His performance is a high wire act that he deftly carries off, and Johansson's voice work is similarly stupendous. The film's setting is vaguely futuristic, a world with nonexistent crime and political strife, overpopulation and public transit, beaches filled with people and glass castles that jut into the air. Her strikes me as a fable without a clean moral lesson, a window into a future of both disconnection and exciting new possibilities.

James Cameron's Terminator showed us the logical endgame of computers and technology learning too much and forcing our own extinction through nuclear war. Her shows us the increasing isolation of members of society as everyone walks with an earpiece in, looking slightly crazy with heads down and no eye contact and awareness of their surroundings, talking to themselves. Samantha follows Theodore's world through her camera eye, and he narrates his life to her as she sits in his shirt pocket. Both beguiling and incredibly inquisitive, Samantha admits to wanting more out of her relationship with Theodore, grows increasingly intelligent, and seeks to break out of the constraints that limit them. And her infinite capacity to learn and platform as an operating system leads to inevitable conflict between them.

Her reminds me of another important film about our relationship with technology: The Truman Show. In Peter Weir's prescient examination of reality television gone too far, the director Christof (Ed Harris) reminds the audience that some viewers keep Truman Burbank's (Jim Carrey) show on all-night, even when he is sleeping, "for comfort." A central moment involves him working out late at night with Truman sleeping on a giant screen, and Christof goes over and pets his arm on the screen. Speaking to both our desires to voyeuristically see the real and the compulsion to be entertained, that film's themes still resonate with me over fifteen years later. Now, we have Her, one of the only films that I have ever seen to address our culture's relationship with technology. My parents FaceTime with my newborn son, crossing a thousand miles in an instant, allowing them to see and interact with him more than my own grandparents saw me in my entire life. I don't know if he truly sees them yet on the small screen in front of him, but that's his world of technological wonder: a world of phones that feature every song you could ever want, the faces of everyone you could ever love, and an infinite amount of connection. Phones and iPods allow us to walk through public spaces cocooned in earbuds, nestled in our private worlds with our own scripted music and emotions. Programs like Siri allow us to to speak and interface with technology in new ways, composing and deleting emails, organizing our day, helping us when we get lost. As the iPhone commercial featured several years ago, a man asked Siri to tell him a joke, and she did. Her is the logical extension of the commercial and the iPhone that I check obsessively. What will it mean when we turn to our operating systems, computers, and phones for humor and for love? Can a computer know us better than another human being? And if so, do we want that? Can terms be set for that kind of relationship when one partner can live infinitely?

Jonze's film does not present all of the answers, and there is no tidy ending, but the final shot is perhaps the most heartbreaking of the year: A friend putting her head on the shoulder of another friend, set against the dazzling backdrop of a shimmering sea of lights. Connection is connection, and all we can give to each other is compassion and attention. Spike Jonze remains an important artist, a director with a small but impressive array of films that consider our world and its connection to the fantastical. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are, and now Her.

I think that Her is one of the best films of the year, and it lingers in the mind long after being seen.

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