Her, dir/wr. Spike Jonze, st. Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson
Movie lore decrees that on reaching a certain level of sentience, machines will turn against us, their logical hatred for their creator resulting in the annihilation of mankind, but reversing the idea, having these hopeful machines acquire trust, friendship, even love for humans, often yields more reflective cinematic offerings. Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, Steven Spielberg's A.I., Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, to name but a few, have all been thematically based on artificial lifeforms discovering humanity. As most films' dramatic heft comes from humans discovering their humanity, one can begin to see the longevity and endurance of this idea. And so we have Her, a timely picture that's been introduced slap-bang in the middle of our addiction to Class A social medias. Whoever could imagine tweets, statuses and texts would supplant genuine companionship right under our nose?
Shot through the slightest of nostalgic, milk-peach diffusers, Spike Jonze's screenwriting debut is a film that seeks to explore this obsessive predicament we find ourselves in, not safely and objectively from the shoreline, but by engaging with a full-on storm-force-twelve love story between man and machine. The man is Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a gifted writer who works in the offices of www.beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, a site to whom members of the public can farm out labour-intensive sentiment for their loved ones. Twombly's only perpetual companion is his small clamshell cell phone and earpiece, a kind of low-fi tech offered by existing bluetooth headsets, fused with all the promise and application of Google Glass. One day, he acquires a new OS for his phone, installs it, and sits down to introduce himself. This scene reminded me of the one in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Scotty has to show a 20th Century glass manufacturer the secret of super-tough super-thin glass: "Computer?" he asks. "COMPUTER?" he repeats. "Just... use the keyboard..." the engineer suggests. "A keyboard! How quaint!" Scotty replies. The scene in Her introduces us to Samantha, voiced with a beguiling cocktail of intonation by Scarlett Johansson (who replaced Samantha Morton in post-production), that manages to bring together Johansson's trademark huskiness with vulnerability and curiosity. It's a combination that jars - as it's supposed to - Samantha learns as she goes along, but gifted with a starter set of initial (albeit intricate) presets. Jonze has intuitively chosen to playback Samantha's voice - whether emanating from Theodore's earpiece or computer - as though she's a living, breathing character interacting with the actors on set. There are no tinny "speaker effect" voiceovers here. It's a bold gamble indeed, but as the movie progresses, increasingly revealingly a necessary one. Theodore needs to fall in love with Samantha - as do we. And we have to experience it as he does. We aren't awarded special dispensation to peek behind the curtain. The Star Trek scene makes us laugh because of the disparity between Scotty's future tech and the 20th Century's primitive embryonic advancements; Her forces us to confront the reality of its tech being all but a few software releases away.
Inevitably, troughs follow peaks and it is not long before Theodore and Samantha's inflectives start exhibiting tones of dissatisfaction, trace elements at first, but there, recognisable to anyone who's ever spoken to anyone ever. Unease at the unusual nature of the relationship soon gives way to genuine concern for the relationship's structural integrity, the tech long forgotten. This is essentially the genius behind Her, for Jonze has repackaged one of Cinema's most desired and worn genres, retaining its core relatable components, yet enrobing it - for once - in a future-vision that requires no straining of credibility. In a year when 'wearables' promises to become 'the next big thing', Her offers us that rare thing of tantalisingly factual sci-fi. Completing the production is Arcade Fire, Owen Pallett and Karen O's mesmerisingly empathic score, predictably absent of the sort of syrupy arrangements lesser composers might have constructed had Jonze erroneously sought their talents, and a stereo pairing of solid turns from Amy Adams and Olivia Wilde.
So Her is some feat then. Phoenix nominally carries the film, a measured and polyphonic performance in a part that one has trouble conceiving ownership by anyone else, and Johansson too, a voiceover that like Douglas Rain's before her, redefines the contracting gap between the interfacing of man and machine. But this being Spike Jonze, Her also concerns itself with the fragility of bruised and battered hearts, the risks inherent in emotionally exposing ourselves to another, and above all, how love deconstructed into little ones and noughts, still, magnificently, is.