“The heart’s not like a box that gets filled up, it expands in size the more you love.”
The over-fascination with technology in science fiction pops its ugly wooden head over and over like a literary game of Whack-A-Mole. In books, this can translate to the dreaded Wall of Text– where every acronym the author can think of is strung together with computer science jokes or loving dissertations on quantum physics. In movies, the affair with technology leads to Shiny Things dominating the screen, clicking and whirring through fantastic gyrations. Both mediums suffer from these tactics– primarily, the loss of humanity and human interaction that stories use to grab our attention and hold it.
Her, the latest movie by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), is as wonderfully dense as Jonze’s other films. I’ve seen it described as a simple love story hung about with the trappings of science fiction, or as a discussion of the AI singularity told through a sweet love story. Like most wonderfully complex movies, you get out of it what you bring to it… And what you find speaks to you most.
For me, this movie is primarily about relationships… The lonely space before you meet someone new, the giddy high of the first days of your time together, the occasional fights, the comforting familiarity, the slow slide of growing apart and away from each other– these aspects can be found in every relationship shown in Her, regardless of who or what is involved.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a soft-spoken composer of “hand-written” letters, all of them from someone he’s never met, to someone he’s never met. He feels like he knows his clients down to the tiniest detail, but as is quoted later in the movie, “The past is a story we tell ourselves.” He’ll never know whether or not he’s right, but he’ll never be hurt by being wrong, either. The entire society seems isolated from itself, outsourcing love letters, eyes glued to their smartphones, never walking with someone, just near them. The LA of this future is sprawling, placid… And profoundly disconnected.
Theodore is the heart of the film, his face dominating a large proportion of the shots. Before he meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), we see his awkward, aimless walk through life– plagued by flashbacks to his failed marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), from its sweet beginnings to its cold finish. He plays a video game in which his character tries desperately to climb up a slippery slope and fails. He connects to a chat room to find someone with whom to banish the empty night and ends up getting into a supremely awkward sex chat with “SexyKitten” (voiced by Kristen Wiig). We also meet his friends Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher), whose marriage is clearly on the rocks.
Then he sees an advertisement for OS1 and buys it on impulse (apparently, writing love letters for isolated people is quite lucrative). The artificial intelligence takes a few minutes to set up by asking Theodore three oddly generic questions. The voice is warm and slightly scratchy, nearly a parody of the Hollywood character type of Sexy Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she makes Theodore laugh, and he warms to her immediately. She dubs herself Samantha and cleans up his hard drive. (No innuendo intended.)
The slow evolution of their relationship is both entirely unique and completely identifiable. So what if their dates are bizarre on the surface, full of Theodore dashing around, laughing in delight at his phone, or lying on a beach, gazing soulfully at the camera that serves as Samantha’s eye? Other people’s relationships always look strange from the outside. They still follow that same arc of discovery I outlined before, that first shuddering, tentative moment of realizing the other feels the same as you and the first touch that feels like an electrical shock you never want to end. (The first sex scene between Theodore and Samantha is one of the most tastefully handled moments in the movie.) But we also see the familiarity and relaxation of being with someone you know loves you, and the chest-hollowing realization that you’ve grown apart.
The movie is all this and more, and I don’t want to spend too many column inches lovingly describing everything I liked about it: Joaquin Phoenix’s amazing face, the futuristic environment (that is also still plausible), the wonderfully silly high-waisted pants and 70s porn-staches, the adorably foul-mouthed cute dude in the video game (voiced by the director), the way no one has a nickname– as though Jonze couldn’t bear to simplify or minimize anything.
In fact, I only had one real problem with the movie: If this is LA, why is everyone so white? Where are all the people of color that make up the vast melting pot that is the City of Angels? LA is less than half white today… So what happened to the racial mix? You’d think this would be an easy issue to deal with. Did they shoot on the cheap in Sweden or something? Sheesh.
The scene that stuck with me the most was after Samantha had gone. Theodore is alone in his apartment, looking out the window, and asks his (now just a program) house operating system to take a dictation for a message to his ex-wife. His face– when the flat, computerized voice answers– is heartbreaking… But he doesn’t crumble and he doesn’t hide. Instead, he reaches out to Catherine as a friend, trying to recapture a level of friendship with her. Then he goes to Amy’s apartment, and they walk out onto the roof together to look out at the rest of the world– as though they have never seen it before.
This moment on the roof isn’t a hop to a new relationship (it’s established early that Theodore and Amy tried dating once and it failed miserably) fated to run the same course all Theodore’s relationships have run before. This is a moment of true connection with a friend, and it gave me confidence Theodore had grown and changed for the better.
Her shines, but not in some flashy Iron Man way. The secret here is to absorb and savor the memorable moments. They will strike you as more human than most any Hollywood may create this year.