Verdict: Powered by some ingenious scripting, this is as intriguing and relevant a work as you’re likely to see this year.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sensitive, poetic soul who makes a living writing personal letters for others. Lonely and hurting from a long-term relationship breakup, he seeks solace in late-night internet dalliances. When he hears about a new computer operating system, intuitive, intelligent and individually customised to the user, he is intrigued and purchases one. The OS is ‘female’, names itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and in empathically responding to Theodore rapidly develops an integrated personality that seems a perfect fit for his. When things turn ‘physical’ and their companionship enters the realm of love, Theodore goes with the flow, but where will it lead him – and where Samantha?
You’ve gotta love the premise: a guy falls in love with his computer OS. But where to go with it? You can imagine it being a jumping off point for a madcap sci-fi farce, or a 30-minute futuristic TV fantasy a la The Twilight Zone, but a feature movie? It would take a zoned-out and insanely abundant imagination – a Philip K Dick – to sustain the idea dramatically for 100+ minutes.
Well yeah, if you’re stuck in the sci-fi genre. But although Her is set in the future (one that may well be not far away from where we are now), it is not really sci-fi. Rather, it’s a bona-fide tragi-comic romance with its social context essentially of the now.
Some of the territory the film traverses includes web porn, the paradoxical nature of online communication modes in enhancing the possibility of both intimacy and deception, urban loneliness, pop psychology, the current analysis mania in personal relationships, narcissism…
It’s quite a feat that writer/director Spike Jonze has managed to pull this movie off, due in large part to an ingenious screenplay informed by rigorous thought and a firm adherence to internal logic. Jonze builds on the initial premise to push it in ever-surprising but always dramatically credible directions. So many terrifically creative stories end up collapsing on the finish line, and it’s hard to avoid fearing that he’ll paint himself into a corner and won’t be able to find a way out. Happily, the resolution is gratifyingly unpredictable and credible. There is a nod to Hollywood-style sentimentality right at the end that rankles like a botched final chord in an otherwise finely executed symphony, but this is a minor gripe. Ditto the odd bum line of dialogue and comedy misfire.
A barely recognisable Joaquin Phoenix (surely, the great chameleon of today’s actors) turns in a humdinger of a performance as Theodore, and Scarlett Johanssen’s vocal tones are perfect for Samantha. She’s sexy, witty, sensitive, very definitely feminine, as real a character as an OS could be – and certainly real enough for Theodore to fall plausibly in love with!
But then, it’s not a leap so far. The idea of a man creating feminine perfection from the clay of his longing and imagination is an old one (eg: Coppélia), and to go right back, the unattainable romantic ideal of courtly love is at the core of this narrative. And of course, writers and filmmakers have long toyed with the notion of infusing robots with humanity (eg: Bladerunner, AI, Bicentennial Man). Why not an intimate relationship with an intuitive, intelligent, personally customised OS?
In improbably but successfully blending disparate elements – the traditional with the contemporary, comedy with tragedy, sci-fi geek fantasy with serious social commentary – Jonze has created something quite unique in Her. As a film, I’m not sure it’s as brilliant as the screenplay and sustained imaginative vision that is its bedrock, but it’s as intriguing and relevant a work as you’re likely to see this year. Its timing is perfect; Her may well go down as one of the great zeitgeist flicks. Don’t miss.
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