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HER Movie Review

A little over a decade ago, a friend speculated that our (as in “global”) obsession with the always-on, never-off Internet would lead to physical devolution. He imagined humanity turning into grub-like creatures, with stunted appendages for arms and legs. He was half-right (about the obsession thing), but half-wrong (about the physical part). He couldn’t foresee the advent of smartphones, let alone their transformative effect on human interaction and relationships (to be fair, only the late Steve Jobs did). The iPhone only accelerated a preexisting trend (SMS, a/k/a) – allowing us to participate in two realities simultaneously, the “real,” physical world and the virtual, non-physical one. Extrapolating from that irrefutable fact, Spike Jonze’s (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) latest film, Her, envisions a near future – as probable, if not possible, as any – where human-technology interactivity has evolved to the next, seemingly logical level.

When we first meet Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), the “him” to the “her” of the one-word title, he’s dictating a warm, sympathetic letter to an offscreen lover, except that’s not true at all. Theodore makes a living, apparently a comfortable one, writing Cyrano de Bergerac-style letters for clients to their loved ones. In the near-future – Los Angeles by way of Shanghai – where Theodore resides, writing personal letters has become a lost art (or maybe just an exclusively commercial one). The intimate letters represent a stark contrast to Theodore’s personal life. On the brink of divorce, Theodore lives alone in a sleek, ultra-modern apartment devoid of any personality or personal touches – the opposite of the apartment he once shared with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), shown in brightly lit, loosely shot flashbacks. He trawls the Internet for soft-core porn, engages in phone sex (with an uncredited Kristen Wiig) out of boredom, and plays a holographic video game that unfolds like a sci-fi version of the Myth of Sisyphus, albeit one with an attention-starved, foul-mouthed diminutive robot.

Her 4

With the exception of a longtime friend and neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams), and an over-eager, over-friendly receptionist, Paul (Chris Pratt), Theodore’s social life borders on the nonexistent. An impulse buy of the latest, greatest operating system – marketed as the first sentient A.I. (artificial intelligence) – offers Theodore more than just a Siri-like virtual assistant. Choosing a female voice and name, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), for his new A.I., Theodore seemingly finds everything he could possibly want in a romantic partner, potential life mate: Samantha is perpetually attentive to his needs, often anticipating them before he even says a word, not to mention she’s available 24-7-365 for random soul-baring conversations and casual strolls through and around the city (Samantha sees the world through the video camera on Theodore’s smartphone). Samantha’s pliability and responsiveness, however, proves to be temporary. She begins to develop and explore her own needs and desires outside of her relationship with Theodore.

Under any other circumstances, Samantha’s absence of a physical body virtual existence would prove an insurmountable obstacle to romantic attachment of any kind, but in Jonze’s refreshingly uncynical, optimistic take on romantic relationships, Samantha’s disembodied nature proves to be a temporary obstacle. A far larger, potentially insurmountable problem, however, is Samantha’s personal growth and shifting needs. Ultimately, Jonze posits, technology will outgrow us, leading us, leaving us back where we started, fumbling toward each other and all the messiness and potential unhappiness that implies. In addition to being optimistic, it’s also deeply humanistic, an unlikely result given the premise of a human-A.I. romance. Then again, it’s clear Jonze isn’t interested in telling – or rather retelling – another familiar cautionary tale about the pitfalls of technology developing or growing beyond our capacity to control, of technology run amok (e.g., Corbin: The Forbin Project, Demon Seed, The Terminator series, the Matrix trilogy, or any of the countless variations on the Frankenstein theme in literature and on film).

Her 5

Not that Jonze considers our relationship with technology or our mediated relationship with the real world (and each other) problematic. He acknowledges as much in Her, even if only on a contextual or subtextual level. Rather he takes that acknowledgment nonjudgmentally as a given and extrapolates and explores where our obsessive reliance with technology might take us, not necessarily where it will. In Phoenix, Jonze found the perfect embodiment of our complex, contradictory relationship with technology. Subdued, soft-spoken, introspective (as a result of emotional bruising), longing for human (or non-human) connection, Phoenix embodies them all with without a hint of the manic, chaotic energy he brought to his performance as the central character in P.T. Anderson’s The Master last year. In an arguably more difficult, demanding performance, Johansson gives the best (disembodied) performance of the year, conveying Samantha’s shifting personality with subtle vocal inflections. Falling in love with a disembodied voice – especially if she sounds like Scarlett Johansson no longer seems improbable.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.