Retro Review: Her

takes a look back at Spike Jonze’s Her

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

★★★★★
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson
Length: 2hr 6m
Rating: 15

Artificial Intelligence is never out of the news. It seems as though every week there is a new development, a new implication for the future of the world and a new warning about how AI may not spell a new era, but the end of the world as we know it, perhaps even the end of civilisation altogether. Just a few days ago, technology bigwig Elon Musk warned of the dangers of AI and invested in $1 billion into researching them. There are others who disagree, pointing simply to the almost magical capabilities “robots” now have; one recent breakthrough was the development of a “naturally curious” AI. The wonders, dangers and questionable morals of Artificial Intelligence have typically attracted interest from the cinema. Whether it be the more blockbustery vibe of I, Robot, the thinky approach of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina or Ridley Scott’s seminal classic Blade Runner.

Make no mistake, living in our world in this era, as in any era, can be a challenge, especially considering the turbulent politics that makes both our present and future even harder to comprehend. Cinema is one of the greatest helps we get when facing it. One option is to transport yourself to a fantasy-land and forget the world around you. Another is to angrily engage with it and watch some heated documentaries. My advice, however, is to watch Spike Jonze’s Her. Released just over 3 years ago, it explores both our ever-changing technology-led world and the future impact of curious, conscious AI, and the human relationships that endure it.

These relationships are integral to life. Consequently, they are integral to some of the greatest films ever made. Whatever happens, other people and their interactions will always have the power to thrill us, infuriate us, change us, lift us and break us. From the crumbling marriage of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the intense passion of the Before… trilogy, from the crippling loneliness of Taxi Driver to the inexplicably strong friendship of The Big Lebowski, filmmakers have been playing with their characters’ (and our) hearts for decades. Her is possibly at the top of this illustrious list. It is a film of visual splendour, hilarious wit and an intensity of feeling that is so rarely achieved in cinema. It is also a film for our times and could continue to be for decades to come.

The set-up is fairly straightforward – Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, reeling from his break-up with Rooney Mara’s Catherine and making a living writing “personal” letters for other people. Tormented and lonely he decides to buy a newly-developed operating system that has been designed to have artificial intelligence. Enter the outstanding voice-work of Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, the computer that seems to all intents and purposes to be a fully-fledged person, only without the body that we all take for granted. As her experiences of the world grow and she develops her personality an odd yet genuine, touching love story ensues between Theodore and, yes, an operating system.

Her is in essence a classic love story, but with a modern twist. Yet this futuristic element never feels like a gimmick. It’s much more than “it’s just like a normal romance, but with a computer”. As much as this statement holds true in many regards, Jonze’s film succeeds as a relationship drama not by transcending its sci-fi premise, but by using it to explore the material in a deeper way. A future society where Theodore writes “heartfelt” letters to people he’s never met raises the distinction between real and “artificial” emotion that surrounds much of the film’s core themes. As with any film about AI, there is always the lingering question of what it means to be human, particularly here when Samantha’s emotions are so identifiably similar to our own. Yet despite the similarity, her obvious lack of other human qualities allows Jonze to raise further fascinating questions. Are we naturally more drawn to those who are similar to us? Does love across boundaries, whether they be religious, racial, political or technological, bring with it a certain fear and reticence, or does the potential danger of judgement spur us on to do what feels right? Are there, or should there be, any real boundaries to love? Falling for an operating system sounds crazy, but as one character tells us, love is just “a form of socially acceptable insanity”, so why is this love any weirder than others?

Well, what about sex? Surely you can’t have a relationship with someone who doesn’t have a body? Just how important is a physical form to a relationship? How much of what we feel, whether that be love, pain or excitement, is felt through our bodies? Whilst hyper-intelligent and exceedingly efficient in some respects, Samantha is in fact deficient when it comes to interacting with our physical world. The various attempts to build a sex life without physical connection are by turns hilarious, unsettling and surprisingly erotic.

It is due to this variety in tone and lightness of touch that Her doesn’t become a dense treatise on life, love and laptops. What is extraordinary about Jonze’s achievement here is that there is so much to think about on the topic of relationships you could practically write a book exploring it all, yet you don’t have to give any of it a second’s thought to get swept away in the film’s strong sensory embrace. Combining his immaculate script with exquisite shots of a city both romantic and cold as it is held ever tighter by the dubious grip of technology and music and sound design to satisfy every physical element of our experience, Jonze conjures a kind of romantic cinematic magic that is simultaneously simple and complex. Such a mix is perfectly apt for a film about love – a subject that can be summed up in one word but talked about for days.

Despite this, it can’t quite be forgotten that the entire foundation of the film is based on an idea that could have been hard to sell convincingly, but thankfully Jonze had a talented cast to call on. Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde take small roles but leave lasting impressions whilst Amy Adams does good work as Theodore’s long-time friend Amy, the one woman that he perhaps needs most. Meanwhile, Phoenix’s central performance is nothing short of magnificent. To convey the variety of emotions his character goes through whilst having only Johansson’s voice to interact with is a highly impressive feat. He convinces too as an intelligent, funny man who still has a glimmer of charm left, but whose energy and lust for life has been drained by a bitter break-up. He is then a joy to watch as he rediscovers the wonder of the world thanks to Samantha. If there is one thing to take away from Her into our troubled times, it is that for the lucky among us there is a great deal of good in the world that we sometimes forget is there; Samantha teaches Theodore and us to be excited by the world again. From the minute he bought that operating system, Theodore knew deep down that he needed somebody like Samantha. To find that in technology is a bewildering, exciting and frightening possibility. So is love.

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