A modern, thought-provoking film of modern cinema, Her is the product of Jonze’s unique screenwriting and the wonderfully expressive voice acting of Scarlett Johansson.
Spike Jonze’s latest film Her, focuses on the unlikely romance between two individuals in the near future living in Los Angeles, California. The reason the relationship between Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is so unlikely is that the couple is only one part human. Samantha is a piece of new technology, an artificially intelligent operating system designed to see to Theodore’s everyday needs. However the twist in this is the rather unnerving addition of Samantha having a human consciousness and being able to educate herself. Through this innovation the new AIs form emotional responses to their human counterparts.
Jonze brings the pair together at Twombly’s lowest, whilst he is trapped in a seemingly inescapable melancholia due to his recent divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara) and his self-pity brought on by his struggle with commitment to romantic relationships. Following their introduction to each other it becomes apparent that Samantha is the saviour of Theodore and vice versa. Samantha’s companionship pulls him from his depression and remedies his commitment issues whilst Theodore’s comfort helps Samantha overcome the doubts she harbours concerning the validity of her thoughts, feelings and her relationship with him. Once these hurdles are surpassed the unorthodox couple come to odds against a more threatening barrier – Samantha’s artificial intelligence outgrowing her love for Theodore.
To his credit, Jonze’s Her is a superb contradiction to other science fiction films based on artificial intelligence and the uncertainty surrounding its potential. For instance, though largely incomparable to Her, the films AI, I, Robot and The Terminator franchise all document artificial intelligence outgrowing humanity, becoming superior and being bent on the domination of the human race and this has become the accepted presentation of Artificial Intelligence in Hollywood. In a refreshing contrast to this, the AIs of Her outgrow humanity in an emotional sense as well as in an intellectual one and act upon this in a peaceful manner and are deeply hurt and saddened at doing so. This, in combination with Johansson’s stellar voice acting allows the audience to empathise with Samantha over her conflicting feelings and regrets more so than the human protagonist, Theodore, which is some feat.
Her is also full of ethical questions evaluating whether the creation of such technology with the capacity to educate itself is a safe pursuit for the betterment and security of mankind. But of more concern to Her is whether creating an artificial consciousness capable of everything the human mind can achieve and more, emotionally and otherwise but deprive it of a physical presence is a humane thing to do? This is where Her is at its best, in using its subject matter to provoke debate about the technology of today. If we think about it, in the present we have similar yet by no means as advanced OS that interact with us through the medium of speech; Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Android Voice to name the most prolific. How far from Samanthaesque operating systems are we? Twenty to thirty years, at the current rate of progression?
However, the intellectual debate of Her aside, this film when stripped to its bare bones is essentially a love story and an effective one at that despite its abnormalities. The hardships overcome by Theodore and Samantha are made easily visible to the audience through the remarkable authenticity brought to the barely plausible relationship by Phoenix and Johansson, whose timing in conversation, especially in the more light-hearted of interaction between the two does wonders to make it believable. It is worth noting that despite Joaquin excelling in the portrayal of the coy and isolated Theodore; it is arguably Scarlett Johansson’s supreme voice acting, characterised by such expression that brings the chemistry to the on-screen relationship. This is all the more admirable when you consider that the part of Samantha was originally voiced by actress Samantha Morton and it was not until post-production that the initial recordings were replaced by Johansson’s. Further, the choice of Scarlett Johansson to ultimately play the part of the OS helped to make the character more ‘real’ as you could picture what could be her physical form as a ghostly, computer-generated image. If the casting had be left as it was, the audience may have had more of a struggle achieving this with a less notable actress. It could be argued that her portrayal of Samantha is certainly worthy of recognition, though sadly the conservatism of the Academy saw fit not to include a voice actor among the nominees.
The already fantastic cast is only added to in the casting of the peripheral characters, Amy; Theodore’s best friend and his estranged wife, Catherine portrayed by Amy Adams and Rooney Mara respectively. Whilst their performances are faultless, both characters serve to be rather clumsy plot devices at times something not usually attributable to Jonze’s work. For instance, from the word ‘go’ it is all too clear that Amy’s relationship with Charles (Matt Letscher) was doomed to face some struggles and would result in Amy having far more influence in Theodore’s decisions regarding Samantha whilst being a blatantly obvious parallel to Theodore’s own failed relationship with Catherine with very little nuance.
Jonze has achieved something rare with Her. Through his direction and stunning screenplay that has seen him gain an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award, he has managed to make the audience’s strong empathy for two truly unique and remarkably relatable characters coexist with the picture’s morality-heavy themes without having one subtract from the other. If having your brain engaged and your opinions challenged whilst being invested in the relationship of two characters sounds like something you would enjoy, then Her is definitely a must-see for 2014.