Virtually Yours: Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) – Blu-ray review
The future’s bright, the future’s strange. Why use an iPhone to make a booty call when the iPhone might be the booty?
(Spike Jonze, 2013)
There’s a moment of panic towards the end of Her when Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) loses the reception on his phone. We’ve all been there, although most of us wouldn’t race to find a better signal, risking injury in the process. But then, Theodore is also panicking because he can’t get hold of his girlfriend, and we’ve all been there, too.
Where we haven’t been is that, in this case, the two are one and the same, because Theodore’s girlfriend is the operating system of his smartphone. Computer romance is nothing new – the arrival of the home computer created cinematic relationships both bad (Electric Dreams) and worse (Demon Seed), while the roots of the genre can be traced all the way back to Metropolis. But Jonze’s film is more subversive, because it doesn’t paint its near-future as a dystopia but a plausible projection of things to come – and, strangely, it soon might become possible to fall in love with zeros and ones.
Her might be the most Zeitgeisty film of recent times, eclipsing even Gravity as a story that speaks to modern loneliness and deep metaphysical questions about what it means to be human. And here Jonze actually puts the ‘geist’ into Zeitgeist, with a key protagonist being the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson.
It’s easy to mock this as a piece of hipster pretension, with its retro-futurist lines and self-consciously cool performances. Yet the same argument has always been levelled at Jonze, and he’s always responded by showing real emotion between the quirkiness. This shares with Being John Malkovich and Where The Wild Things Are a yearning for contact, and escape from the harsher realities of life. Infantile? Sure, but Jonze has a strong self-analytical bent.
From the slightly off, third-person titling, everything in Her is at one remove, reflecting a world where everybody lives in their own bubbles, walking in lockstep without ever seeing or hearing each other because all eyes are on the tiny screens, ambient noise blocked out by earphones. Jonze finds dislocation everywhere, from Theodore’s job of ghost-writing love letters for the emotionally tongue-tied, to his late-night sex calls with anonymous partners too engrossed by their own perversions to connect. Faux emotions are heightened in an uncanny world where sound and vision are separate – from a pint-sized, profane computer game character (the film’s most Jonze-y moment) to a creepy sex surrogate, to the ultimate recasting as Samantha Morton (who voiced Samantha on-set in live reaction to Phoenix) is replaced in post-production by Johansson.
Just as Her was released in UK cinemas, an academic study was published which suggested that divorce rates were on the increase because people aren’t meeting the psychological needs of their partners. That certainly appears to be the case for Theodore, whose marriage to Kathryn (Rooney Mara) collapsed because of incompatible expectations, and also for the frosty detente between his friends Amy and Charles (Amy Adams and Matt Letscher). In this world, an O.S. is the perfect lover – a servant who can do the chores, figure out the right thing to say and provide unquestioning feedback.
Visually, the film becomes an almost messianic study of Theodore as the master of his domain. Faced with a love story where one of the characters is inanimate, Jonze has restricted shot choices and his approach is telling. Rather than cutaway to the camera eye on the smartphone, 2001-style, Jonze cuts from Phoenix… to Phoenix. It’s an approach that undercuts the aural symmetry – the dialogue is beautifully calibrated and performed – because it feels like we’re watching a man talk to himself. It’s slightly unnerving and claustrophobic, even when the actual content is joyful.
Yet Jonze’s real genius is to further complicate things by ensuring that Samantha isn’t an unquestioning servant but a sentient being. Usually, that path leads to attempted world domination; here it allows Jonze to try something far more subversive – a bona-fide love story, which plays out with the narrative beats of any love story. Except, because it isn’t, it becomes a love story about love stories, giving unusual weight to how lovers communicate, and exploring what love is – a state of mind, a physical attraction, both? And what happens if even the perfect partner develops needs that a mere human cannot help with.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is that there’s no human/OS prejudice – this isn’t Lars And The Real Girl v2.0. As Theodore comes out, he finds that society is accepting of his relationship because, frankly, everybody is already two-timing on their partners with their phone, nipping off to check Facebook updates. The one person who provides the outrage – Kathryn – does so not through technophobia but the more traditional disgust of an ex who wonders what Theodore’s new choice of partner says about her.
One by-product of this is that the film offers a clutch of great female roles, not least Samantha, at once a helpless innocent and a near-omniscient god. Johansson nails the tone of a character who Method-acts her way into sentience, initially self-conscious in phrasing or vocabularory before gradually taking on genuine emotion. But it’s very much Phoenix’s show, a performance of tremendously offbeat likeability, harnessing his customary awkwardness so that when love arrives it changes his whole posture – the way his expressive eyebrows dance is worth watching the film for.