The same argument is often presented: is technology ruining our ability to connect with others? Spike Jonze’s (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Where The Wild Things Are”) new film “Her,” starring lead actor Joaquin Phoenix, poses a new question: can our affiliation with our created technological entities reach a symmetrical balance in which we both live on the same plane of existence? In simpler terms, can we live in harmony if technology develops the ability to outlearn its pre-designed programing, evolving into something self-aware with a conscious ability to feel? If that is the case, how do we conduct our behavior towards it? For Joaquin Phoenix’s character Theodore, this means getting romantically entangled with the voice of his operating system.
Now living a remotely isolated existence after adjourning a divorce request by his wife (Rooney Mara), Theodore wanders the not-too-distant future of Los Angles seeking connection, intimacy, and love. Working at a company called Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, his job involves the task of thoughtfully writing affectionate letters to his clients’ wives, husbands, grandmothers, grandsons, and so on. Quietly crafting them from the hub of his cubicle, Theodore handwrites personal messages for people too occupied or emotionally disconnected to do so themselves. Theodore is a bit of an introverted, lonely fellow who does not go out much these days. When he is not busy playing interactive video games, he periodically socializes with his long-time college friend, Amy (Amy Adams). Working as a video game designer, she persistently pushes Theodore towards getting back into the dating word, all the while having some marriage complications of her own. It is then Theodore catches an advertisement for a new line up of OSs (Operating Systems). An interactive, SIRI-like personal assistant named Samantha, a name she’s assigned to herself (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), acts as a secretary, organizing emails, contacts and various requested commands. From this point on, viewers come to understand how self-aware Samantha really is. Showing definitively how intellectual, funny, and easy to get along with she is, Her and Theodore form a love affair that will find theatergoers restlessly unsure how to feel towards it.
One of the best things about Spike Jonze’s “Her” is that it refuses to be a cautionary tale. While it certainly demonstrates the negative setbacks of being “plugged in,” so to speak, it ultimately chooses not to succumb to an argumentative, counter-clockwise, anti-progress preach against electronics—quite the opposite actually. It is completely convinced in its plausibility of falling in love with an Operating System, something audiences would imagine was irrational prior to seeing it. The scenario is near Cronebergian in concept, yet the scares and body horror are kept at bay in trade for Jonze’s trademark, melancholic, human emotions. Are these emotions any less real because a computer feels them? Phoenix mutters, “You feel real to me, Samantha.” There is something heartwarming about Theodore’s abnormal, forward-looking relationship with his operating system. It is off-kilter, but not as incredibly weird as expected, save one particular situation involving a third party guided by Samantha. Their love affair seems conceivable.
Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who has been captivating to watch grow ever since his portrayal of Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (2012), does phenomenal work here. Theodore is charmingly charismatic, despite being an extremely shy, somber, and vulnerable human being. The world building is also constantly astonishing, a good portion of it being shot in Shanghai. The fictional universe created is enthralling, but never feels like meaningless visual exposition. Spike Jonze never abandons the introspective, intimate feel of the film, sticking with his characters until the bittersweet end. He is in love with his characters too much to focus on the familiar tunes of flying cars that make pulply sci-fi. “Her” gives us a mature rendering of what “The Singularity,” (a point in time in which the technology we have created surpasses its own intelligence, wholly altering our society and what it means to be human) would be like shall it come to pass. It is not exactly the cataclysmic outcome of Skynet (“Terminator”), but it is not quite a rose garden either. There are complex ethical problems at the root of Jonze’s vision that reshape the human condition. Perhaps the junction in time he presents to us is more going than coming. Despite everything, Jonze simply presents us with the big questions, never supplying the answers, leaving viewers with a lot to talk about after the film has ended.
Arcade Fire, the popular indie rock line-up, who only a few months ago released their fourth album, “Reflektor,” worked on the score for the film. The last track of the album “Supersymmetry,” a song that was originally written for the film is featured at one point. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s also contributes a starry, daydreaming, acoustic hymn that was nominated for Best Original Song at this year’s Oscars. Both additions benefit the film greatly and add a heavy emotional anchor to Theodore’s depressed environment.
Exploring our ever-growing personal ties to technology and how it substitutes our need for human interaction, “Her” is an endlessly fascinating film, providing much food for thought once the theater lights come up. Spike Jonze has struck an emotional, nerve-wracking chord, regarding computers becoming an extension of ourselves. Those disappointed with his last film, “Where The Wild Things Are” (2009), a film I personally enjoyed, will find “Her” a welcomed return to form. It is a wonderfully melancholic portrait of where we are possibly heading, that ultimately will be hailed as a new sci-fi classic. Additionally, for those interested in meditations on trans-humanism and the Singularity, be sure to seek out Spike Jonze’s short film “I’m Here.” Moreover, keep an eye out of for Wally Pfister’s (Cinematographer of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, “Inception”, “The Prestige”, “Memento”) directorial debut, “Transendence” (2014) staring Johnny Depp in theaters April 18.
Rob Gabe is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RG770214@wcupa.edu.