Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams.
Former music video director Spike Jonze is a visionary filmmaker who has done some of his best work when working with off beat scripts penned by the eccentric and imaginative Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), which incorporate elaborate special effects and emotional truths. Her is only the second film he has written for the screen as well as directed, following his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, and it is his most personal film to date. Like his previous three films Her follows a character who enters another world while escaping the realities of their own. Her is an offbeat romance that questions human existence and explores what it is that defines us as individuals.
Set in the Los Angeles of the not too distant future, the film tells the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely writer who creates digital greeting cards for those who are unable to express their own feelings. He is still reeling from a bitter divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara), and we see glimpses of their relationship in flashback sequences. But then he unexpectedly finds the ideal companion in the form of a new computerised operating system that is programmed to satisfy his every need and organise his life.
The artificially intelligent system names itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and not only is it voice operated but seems to have a personality of its own. Samantha seems to be the ideal woman for Theodore as she seems to understand him and his needs as well. The pair share a number of personal, revealing and intimate conversations, and she grows exponentially through her connection to him. But she is also curious, and has her own needs and wants. Theodore shows her his city via his camera phone. Through her interaction with Theodore she begins to realise her ambitions, and eventually outgrows her need for him.
For his part, Theodore feels a strong connection to Samantha, who is essentially a disembodied voice (although nowhere near as malevolent, creepy or manipulative as the scary and similarly disembodied HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey). But he gradually snaps out of his funk and is able to put his pain behind himself and move on with his life. He also develops a close friendship with Amy (Amy Adams), a budding filmmaker who lives on the floor above him in the same residential block.
Although Theodore is on screen for most of the film and we follow his thoughts and emotional growth, Her is really Samantha’s story as much as it is his. We follow her growth to self-awareness as she develops her own (humanlike) personality. But it is also a timely tale for the digital age we live in, and it offers a commentary on our obsession with technology in a world where people connect through social media rather than through personal interaction, and the film somehow seems to reflect that sense of loneliness and emptiness of our modern lives. But there is a poignant, bittersweet quality to this deeply personal and affecting exploration of relationships and the desire for love. There is a hint of regret at how fast technology seems to be evolving and taking over our lives.
The film is set in the near future, and Jonze and his regular production designer K K Barrett have taken care to make the world inhabited by these characters believable and vaguely familiar. Exterior locations were shot in both downtown Los Angeles and Shanghai in China, which gives the cityscape its vaguely futuristic look. Swiss cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, etc) bathes the pristine, familiar Los Angeles vistas with a warm glow, but he also works in close-up for many of the scenes inside Theodore’s apartment.
Phoenix has proven himself an actor of great emotional range and complexity – performances as the young Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, a cruel Roman tyrant in Gladiator, his recent unhinged character in The Master, his naive student seduced by the voracious Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, and his faux documentary I’m Still Here demonstrate his range – but he finds a rare vulnerability here. Phoenix delivers yet another subtly nuanced and sensitive performance that mixes great empathy and compassion, and also reveals a softer side to his screen persona.
For her part, Adams is deglamourised and down to earth, a marked contrast to her sexy appearance in the recent American Hustle. And Johansson, who was brought in to the film during postproduction to replace Samantha Morton, breathes life into the character of Samantha, and her rich vocal performance suffuses her with humour, warmth and a sense of wonder at the world she inhabits. Other human characters are played by Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde and Portia Doubleday.
The score from Arcade Fire is evocative and underscores the emotional nature of the material.
Her is at heart a love story and a journey of self discovery, laced with plenty of deadpan humour, and while it may share a few surface similarities with Simone (which starred Al Pacino as a filmmaker obsessed with a CGI actress) and 1984’s almost forgotten Electric Dreams, it forges a distinctly original path.
The budding romance between a lonely man and a computer operator system may seem like a rather flimsy premise around which to build a feature length movie, and at times Her does seem to drag a little and there are a few scenes that smack of unnecessary padding. But ultimately it also offers plenty of food for thought in this increasingly digital age.