As a director, Spike Jonze has specialised in films that have a uniquely quirky character. His approach to film-making has drawn upon his previous work as a music video director, as well as a healthy respect for surreal imagery that he shared with collaborator screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation).
His latest film Her marks a departure, as not only did Jonze write the screenplay, the surreality has been dialled back. The film instead uses a startling colour spectrum, ultra-modern locations in Shanghai and an intimate central performance from Joaquin Phoenix.
Her is a romantic comedy that, despite being a two-hander storyline involving lovers Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), happens to only feature one of the performers onscreen. This is because Samantha is ‘herself’ a computer operating system (OS).
Introduced as a new form of OS that can intuitively evolve to respond to and communicate with users, Samantha becomes a fully-fledged individual in her own right.
Through her interactions with Theodore she becomes increasingly curious about what life is and develops a personality that is sweet-natured and naturally inquisitive.
While Jonze never explicitly identifies the period in which this story is set, this is clearly a utopian Los Angeles of the future, where men wear high pants and most human communication has emigrated to digital. There is no evidence of any poverty, conflict or class oppression.
Lovemaking itself has moved online, with physical intimacy too bothersome for these emotionally insulated future citizens.
In this respect Theodore is no different from most of his contemporaries. He is insecure, uncommunicative and shy in person. With Samantha he not only becomes more expressive but, through their conversations and her infectious enthusiasm for the minutiae of life, rediscovers how to live in the world.
Jonze has addressed two pressing concerns of our age in a cleverly insightful manner with this script.
First is the issue of how society has embraced the use of technology. While all of human culture is merely a keystroke away on Google, this has paradoxically led to a growing trend for online narcissism.
The internet, home entertainment systems and social media in particular allow us as users to exclude the grit of the living world in favour of indulging our own interests.
In Her, the arrival of artificial intelligence results in a reversal of the typical roles – the OSes are more emotive than the robotic and placid Theodores of this world.
Second, this is a depiction of how modern relationships work. Again the emphasis is on convenience and immediate satisfaction.
A promising blind date with the luminous Olivia Wilde features a complaint made in passing that she is sick and tired of romantic encounters never moving forward to a proper relationship.
Theodore is still reeling from the breakdown of his marriage – depicted in brief flashes by Jonze, cleverly charting the disintegration of the relationship with very little exposition.
It is only through Samantha’s encouragement that he begins to let go of the pain. Given how devalued the prospect of a ‘real’ relationship is, Theodore and Samantha falling in love becomes understandable, as well as quite touching.
Phoenix delivers a remarkable performance – he is effectively performing a one-man play for most of his scenes.
The off-screen Johansson is suitably gamine in her delivery as the precocious Samantha, but later expresses a growing disenchantment with the limitations of a human relationship.
A late cameo by actor Brian Cox as digitally resurrected theologian Alan Watts introduces a fascinating third act reveal of how technology could alter our perception of the afterlife.
The emotional peaks and troughs of a relationship are depicted with a refreshing degree of observational detail. When Theodore and Samantha have their first fight, it is devastating. When they sing an improvised song together, it is unbearably sweet.
Her challenges both Luddite criticisms of how society has embraced technology, as well as the resulting convenience culture.
It is smart, romantic and layered with multiple readings. This is an excellent, thought-provoking film.