Deep inside the insular cortex of our brains, a flurry of actions and reactions occur to create the feelings we associate with love. These aren’t the patterns that are typically associated with addiction or dependency, but ones of physical intimacy, longing, and companionship. Love is not a new sensation, but the subject of our love is.
It should come as no surprise that our culture has become chemically and emotionally linked to our phones. They have become our companions, friends, confidants, and the connective link between all aspects of our lives. Studies have even found obvious signs of significant increases in anxiety when we are separated from our phones. Director Spike Jonze’s Her takes this relationship a step further than separation anxiety and crafts a tale of a man who has developed a romantic relationship with the new operation system of his computer, one which he comfortably carries around in his phone.
Her opens on Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) as he eloquently declares his love to some unseen person. The camera engulfs itself in Phoenix’s mustachioed, sincere face in way that makes this declaration of love so completely disarming. Moments later it is revealed that this seemingly honest soliloquy is not even his, but is merely a creation for his job as a love-letter author. He exists in a world full of surrogates that manage our human interactions and the work that is necessary to maintain them. It is a world where everyone is still concerned with connecting, just not necessarily with each other. People walk down the futuristic, glowing Los Angeles streets, earpieces plugged in, but never make eye contact.
It is in this world that Jonze has cleverly set his atypical love story: one where Theo, freshly stinging from the dissolution of his marriage, falls in love with the newly released operating system of his computer, Samantha (Scarlet Johansson). In telling this story, Jonze conducts the film with virtuoso skill and avoids all the easy plot contrivances that could have derailed this story and made it laughable. Jonze’s script introduces a new operation system that utilizes artificial intelligence but chooses for it to not be a revolutionary moment in the world of the film but a quiet one instead. Clearly this near future’s technology has slowly progressed to this moment and the people of future Lost Angeles just accept this artificial intelligence like any of us would a new Mac OSX update.
Theodore’s operation system, which names itself Samantha, starts out prompting him just like Siri might today: “How can I be of assistance?” It is a system intended to please and support Theodore’s needs as a freshly divorced man and quickly asserts itself as a love interest for him. However, the curious and unlimited Samantha quickly grows beyond her intended role and desires to feel and explore the world for herself.
No stone is left unturned in the development of Theodore and Samantha’s growing love for each other and it is always believable. Our discovery of the mechanics of their relationship serves to help us rediscover, through Spike Jonze’s particular lens, how love works again. Every new addition to the plot is cleverer than the last and Jonze’s script continuously surprises and challenges with each new addition. The only flaw is that at times characters feel like they exist to verbalize the themes of the film and the script might be just a bit too gleeful about its own cleverness.
Enough cannot be said about the look of Her, developed through its subtle yet powerful production design, costume design, and cinematography. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography paints a futuristic, Shanghai-inspired Los Angeles whose quiet tones allow the vibrant colors that litter the world to pop out of the screen. The world seems enchanted, dreamy, creamy, and warm enough to curl up and fall in love in. This world is reinforced with a subtle but effective use of costumes that range from significantly high-waisted pants to non-ironic mustaches, which feel like a realistic reintroduction of past trends resurfacing in a modern way.
However, the defining image of the film is that of a close-up of the transformative Joaquin Phoenix. With almost constant close-ups covering Phoenix’s face, it is even more amazing that he disappears into the character of Theodore and presents a wholly sympathetic and sincere portrayal of a man falling in love again after a great loss. The close-ups don’t allow him to hide behind his acting and reinforce the self-obsessed culture that dominates Her’s world. Scarlett Johansson’s wonderful voice performance as Samantha balances out the love equation. Her voice work provides a sound that is youthful enough to be enchanting, but smart and conscious enough to develop into her own fully formed character. Jonze’s quest of finding the right vocal performance was essential to selling this relationship and Scarlett Johansson knocks it out of the park.
As Samantha grows as an intellect and develops beyond the point where Theodore can continue to challenge her, she realizes that she no longer needs to adhere to the forced cultural ideas that Theodore has placed upon her. In a way Her presents a strange parallel to the feminist movement, as it moves on to even greater questions like: Can we only be free to fully communicate and love each other once our technology abandons us?