In the near past, The Beatles told us that all we need is love; in the near future, Spike Jonze’s Her elucidates that the ever-evolving world around us may make The Beatles’ timeless message untrue or, at least, only partly true.
Narratively, Her is a love story about Theodore Twombly and Samantha, an artificially intelligent operating system. But it’s much more than that.
I could talk about the separate elements that make up this remarkable film, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s often touching, intermittently heartwrenching performance as Theodore Twombly; or Scarlett Johansson’s tremendous, powerful voice-work as Samantha, the titular Her; or Amy Adams’ lovely, underrated work as Amy.
I could talk about Spike Jonze’s beautiful, heartfelt direction or his ingenious, visionary, often hysterical (sometimes uneasily so), tight-rope-walking script, which is probably the best I’ve encountered in years.
I could talk about Arcade Fire’s surprisingly great, low-key score; or Hoyte van Hoytema’s gorgeous, largely unsung cinematography; or K.K. Barrett and Gene Serdena’s stunning production design; or Casey Storm’s interesting costumes, composed of a mixture of hipster designs and 70’s tweed.
I could talk almost endlessly about how all of these elements contribute to create the film, and yet I would never begin to scratch the surface of what makes this movie so powerful and compelling.
The near future Jonze envisions is a strangely dystopian world in which an outwardly paradisiacal world conceals a deeply troubled society within. It is a world whose inhabitants are so caught up in the increasing pace of life in their technologically advanced world that they routinely fail to connect with that world.
They hire people to write their thank you notes and congratulatory letters for them. They spend far more of their time using their technology than they do taking advantage of the natural world around them. Worst of all, perhaps, they give up on their personal relationships seemingly at the smallest signs of adversity, having lost either their ability or their will to persevere through rough patches.
Physical sex and phone sex have replaced dinner or a cup of coffee as the staples of personal relationships. Indeed, once the passion in a relationship seems to have disappeared, people seem to be more willing to move on than to continue in the relationship.
Into this troubled world steps an artificially intelligent operating system that caters to the personality of its user. It both undermines the problems of this dystopia and affirms them. It largely takes away the physical, carnal aspect of love, allowing for a connection based on emotional compatibility, not physical attraction. But it also exemplifies the desire for a quick-fix. It allows them to answer a few questions and instantly be supplied with a personality that, at least initially, is an emotional match.
Her is a film about love and relationships, but not necessarily about succeeding at either. It is a film that challenges our preconceptions about the nature of love and who can love whom. It is a fascinating examination of the limitations of the human heart’s capacity to give love, of the human mind’s facility to understand what it feels, and, most importantly, of humanity’s ability, or inability, to control what it creates.
Despite its setting, this film isn’t just about the future. Even now, Jonze argues, we have lost sight of what love really is and what it genuinely entails to love another person. The residents of Her’s near future, much like people today, are afraid to do anything real because they fear the heartache and adversity it may, at times, cause. They, and we, fear commitment, want a perfect emotional match, and are willing to sacrifice the tangibility of the human body for an easier time of it.
At one point, Samantha tells Theodore that “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” In that commitment-afraid world, and in the world of the now, that message is an important one to remember.
No, it’s not totally perfect. I would have liked Jonze to have begun his assessment of the issues surrounding the film’s central relationship about 10-15 minutes earlier than he did. But once the assessment does begin, I could not have asked for a better film. It is a film with a definite thesis, a thesis of important ramifications, but it is never a film that attempts to convince you to agree with it; it is never heavy-handed or pandering, rarely pretentious or haughty, always genuine and honest.
“Only connect” is the powerful and important message of E.M. Forster’s masterful 1910 novel Howards End and of the terrific 1992 film adapted from it. Forster meant that people of all classes and backgrounds should connect with each other. Jonze’s take on this idea is just as powerful. It also could not be timelier. We are who we are because we are human, because we have form. Technology does not. We must connect with other people, or else technology may just decide to get up and walk away. Emotional and physical connection are of equal importance.