Director: Spike Jonze.
Screenplay: Spike Jonze.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Portia Doubleday, Steve Zississ, Bill Hader.
Voices: Scarlett Johansson, Brian Cox, Spike Jonze, Kristen Wiig.
“Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity”
After bringing the warped and surreal works of Charlie Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” to the screen, director Spike Jonze carved himself a reputation for the off-beat. However, a misjudged adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s story “Where The Wild Things Are” followed and I have to admit that doubts were raised about his abilities. I wondered how much of Jonze was in his earlier films or did he actually need Kaufman in order to construct something of substance? On the evidence of “Her“, though, it’s apparent that Jonze is the real deal and fully capable of crafting his own original work.
Spending most of his time writing love letters for others, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a very lonely man in the midst of a bitter divorce. In order to find some sort of emotional connection he purchases the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system known as the OS1. Going by the name of Samantha (and voiced by Scarlett Johansson), their interaction grows to the point where they fall in love. However, both of them struggle with the lack of a physical connection and their feelings of elation turn to doubt and inner conflicts.
The first thing that strikes you about “Her” is the gorgeous production and set design by K.K. Barrett and Gene Serdena. Along with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema they achieve their vision of a not-too-distant future by indulging in lush pastel colours and dated fashion that’s reminiscent of the 80’s. It’s at once both stark yet beautiful and draws comparisons with the work of Stanley Kubrick and his clinical approach to “A Clockwork Orange” or, more so, “2001: A Space Odyssey” in it’s reliance on computer operated systems and voice interaction. The now infamous HAL9000 from “2001” is not that far from Samantha and the comfort and correspondence that it provides it’s human counterpart. Also like Kubrick’s aforementioned Science fiction classic, Jonze’s concept of the future concentrates on the abstract and metaphysical. As a result, it taps into the zeitgeist and becomes an important and astute commentary on a generation connected to the world but foolishly ignoring the ability to connect personally.
The growing intelligence of Samantha as an operating system also begs the philosophical question of Cartesian doubt and the relevance of free thought and emotion. As Samantha begins to explore her possibilities, Theodore and the other human characters are drifting towards an empty and soulless existence. This contrast allows Jonze to hint at the problems we can expect in our worrying obsession with technology.
On paper – or to the ear – the concept may sound ridiculous but on a visual and emotional level, Jonze has crafted a sublime piece of work here and it works primarily because of the irresistibly expressive voice talents of Scarlett Johansson and a superb anchoring performance by Joaquin Phoenix. His omission from the Oscar nominations this year is glaring and he can feel himself very unlucky to be so. He delivers the requisite shyness and vulnerability that brings Theodore’s loneliness to the fore and it’s also worth pointing out that he actually spends most of his time onscreen completely alone. For Jonze to fully realise his vision he needed an actor that could hold your attention and never allow the material to fall prey to absurdity and it’s Phoenix’s nuanced abilities that drive the heartfelt message to it’s Brave-New-Home.
To quote Albert Einstein “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots”. We may not quite have reached that point yet but Jonze’s social, Sci-Fi fable about our co-dependence and increasing disconnection and the technology that perpetuates it, is stark and thought provoking material. It’s simply a wonderful piece of filmmaking and one of the very best of the year.
Trivia: Samantha Morton was originally the voice of Samantha. She was present on the set with Joaquin Phoenix every day. After the filming wrapped and Spike Jonze started editing the movie, he felt like something was not right. With Morton’s blessing, he decided to recast the role and Scarlett Johansson was brought and replaced Morton, re-recording all the dialogue.