Monday, 13 January 2014
FILM REVIEW: HER
In a not-too distant yet totally recognisable future, technology has become even more ingratiated into our everyday lives -- and more sentient. There's no flying cars (damn you, Jetsons!) in Spike Jonze's vision of a futuristic Los Angeles (an almost seamless amalgam of that city and Shanghai, captured with a summery sheen by Hoyt Van Hoytema), yet smart technology has become even more highly developed than in 2014.
But while the human mind may have a challenger for the best computer ever devised, in Her, Jonze's first film directing his own screenplay, the human heart proves to still be the most complicated. And Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who writes other peoples' intimate correspondences for a living, discovers that first hand.
Theodore is in a pre-divorce malaise (his wife, played by Rooney Mara, is glimpsed in 'happier time' flashbacks) when the high-panted (the only negative aspect of the future, it would seem) sad sack decides to upgrade his operating system to a new, artificially intelligent program; one which can be assigned a male or female voice and which develops and grows the more it learns about its user and the world in general.
Understandably, Theodore chooses a female voice for his OS which comes in the smoky, inviting tones of Scarlett Johansson, who christens herself Samantha and, like a similarly named TV witch, brings a certain magic into the lonely letter writer's life. But what starts out as a modern convenience soon becomes something more, something deeper: could Theodore be falling in love with his OS?
Yes he is, but in spite of the ostensibly high concept and potentially humour-laden premise, Jonze's study of hi-tech modern love in the 21st century is an emotionally intelligent, highly affecting tale of connection which, although set in the future, speaks very much to the now: about our reliance upon and immersion in the virtual world, and the ways in which that relationship effects how we relate with the people in our real, day-to-day world.
Phoenix's Theodore is not as socially awkward as, say, Ryan Gosling's titular protag in Lars and the Real Girl (2007), a dramedy about one man's search for human connection via a sex doll surrogate; Theodore's reluctance stems from his divorce, once bitten twice as shy etcetera etcetera. And he has friends, well, one: Amy (Amy Adams, practically mousey compared to her American Hustle incarnation), a documentary filmmaker whom he dated for all of five minutes in college, and who happens to live in Theodore's apartment building.
Otherwise, he's pretty much closed off to the social aspects of the world. Ironically,Theodore's relationship with Samantha opens him up to its possibilities, including excursions to the beach and double dates with work colleague, Paul (Chris Pratt).
It's arguably Phoenix's warmest, most engaging screen performance to date (the actor better known for his intense portrayals of complicated men, such as Freddie Quell in 2012's The Master). Bespectacled and moustachioed, his Theodore, while only a tad goofy-creepy, is empathetic: who hasn't had their heart broken yet taken a more cautious (or unorthodox) approach to dating in the aftermath? And Jonze and Phoenix have Theodore switch between stereotypically male and female positions as his relationship with Samantha evolves and becomes increasingly complicated.
And as Samantha, Scarlett Johansson gives what could be the best performance of her career, one that doesn't see her appear on screen at all. Within her recognisable tone -- which ably conveys warmth, intelligence, doubt, joy, and sadness -- the actress manages to create a living being out of virtual thin air. We have to believe in and invest in the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, and Johansson's voice work makes that leap easier and all the more rewarding.
At a little more than two hours, Jonze's screenplay perhaps runs out of things to say about this post-modern romantic dilemma but even as it's buffering, there's much to enjoy, admire and contemplate in Her. You may even find yourself questioning your own relationships -- human and technological -- and asking which are more rewarding and "real"? But you best be prepared for the answer.