While the idea of a lonely man developing a genuine relationship with a Siri-like talking Operating System, is the stuff of high concept science fiction, Spike Jonze’s trumps the intimate character study of a heartbroken lonely man looking for love in the most unlikely of places. Once again Jonze and turned in a film so unique, original and bold, and yet remarkably accessible and identifiable to almost anyone.
Her (2013) dir. Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara
By Alan Bacchus
While this film has Spike Jonze writing his first original screenplay, the fingerprints of his two Charlie Kaufman collaborations are all over this picture. This theme of the disembodiment of body and soul so memorably expressed in Being John Malkovich is expanded into the realm of the artificial intelligence and speculative fiction.
By the endearing preciousness Jonze paints his lead character Theodore we can’t help connect to his well-known personal life. It was no secret Sofia Coppola’s (Jonze’s former spouse) Lost in Translation was inspired by Jonze’s Japanese junket tour for Being John Malkovich, with Giovanni Ribisi playing the disguised version of her prickly husband. The casting of Scarlett Johansson as the voice and female romantic lead in Her indicates an overt connection to Coppola’s film, but perhaps not intended are the strong tonal and visual connections and sympathetic portrayals of lost and damaged souls wandering aimlessly seeking guidance.
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is introduced still reeling over the divorce with his wife. His job of writing eloquent ‘handwritten letters’ (albeit electronically) to paying clients speaks to his ability to be articulate with his emotions to unseen strangers, but unable to connect in face-to-face physical space. It’s the near future too, with mobile devices with advanced voice and camera capabilities conceived with not-too-far-off believability. Theodore at one point asks his phone for a melancholy song. He gets one perfectly.
Theodore buys a new revolutionary operating system for his phone and computer, simply called OS1 featuring a sophisticated voice command named Samantha. While installing it he chooses a female voice, and gets the husky but soothing voice of Scarlett Johansson. The technology of the OS is remarkably accurate and believable, scrolling and reading emails, checking calendars, Sam, using her artificial intelligence, is able to learn about Theodore and adapt to his personality. As Sam gets to know Theodore more they connect deeper. Soon their conversation is less about planning his day than advice about his relationships, his divorce, his job etc. But as an AI, Samantha broadens her own self-awareness, a concept which invariable will run counter to Theodore’s desires to have her all to himself. The ethical conundrums are thoroughly thought-provoking, probing the nature of our own existence, the meaning of life and what it means to be human. These themes evolve naturally from the concept and never really hit us too far hard on the head.
Though a detailed and well-thought conceptual design of the world is created, the guts of the film is in a series of long conversations between Theodore and Sam – thus Phoenix, alone on screen talking or reacting into thin air. Phoenix renders Theodore so accessible and identifiable his performance becomes so invisible we forget how remarkable it is. Visually, Jonze choreographs these conversations through a number of provocative locales. The urban landscape of future Los Angeles for instance shows the Theodore’s ability to tune out the hustle and bustle of city life in favour of Sam’s emotional needs as a faceless voice.
Jonze’s crafts a number of strange and surreal sequences to rival some of the many memorable absurd moments in Being John Malkovich. At one point, Sam hires a sexual surrogate through which to physically channel her sexual urges. Thus becomes one of the strangest sex scenes ever shot for cinema, a three-way of two physical bodies and one voice.
Jonze’s identifiable style shines through at all times. As proven with his three other features, Jonze’s mix of thought-provoking fantasy concepts with character-based realism. His wild thing characters in Where The Wild Things Are for instanc, were exceptionally grounded as real people inside overly simplistic furry-animal costumes. Here the absurdity of a man having a relationship with a computer is taken seriously by Jonze as well as the other characters in the film and the plot never turns toward melodrama or other perfunctory plot devices. Jonze punctuates this with pitch perfect musical compositions and pop music, a tone which fits like a glove to Jonze’s intimate camerawork and inside-out performances of his actors.
Jonze admirably wears the film’s preciousness on his sleeve, but because the picture feels so personal to him every heart string pulled is earned.