The set up: Los Angeles, in the not too distant future, and preposterously named writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) has recently split from the love of his life. Navel gazing and stuck in a rut he buys a shiny new operating system, an artificially intelligent entity designed to give his life a spring clean and boost his happiness. Constantly linked to him via smartphone and earpiece, the new OS, named Samantha (silkily voiced by Scarlett Johansson) gives him more than he expected, and inevitably Theodore falls in love.
“Man creates machine, man falls in love with machine” is not a new concept by any stretch; Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick were touching on these themes nearly half a century ago, but in this package as a science fiction romantic comedy drama, we are offered a fresh, interesting and often beautiful take.
We are presented with the burgeoning relationship as something organic and normal, it could almost be a standard “boy meets girl” love story were it not for the fact that one half of the couple resides in a computer. Indeed, Her wears its romantic comedy influences on its sleeve, not least in its debt to existential 70’s Woody Allen (albeit with a pinch of Minority Reports glossy future sheen). Her is a film that fuses many fairly common elements together in an distinctly uncommon and fresh package.
Much like the best sci fi, it works as a mirror of the present day, reflecting contemporary anxieties and cultural quirks: The film is littered with people vacantly walking around with earphones in, staring at their phones, or talking via hands free thingamy; Theodore sits alone on the couch interacting with a game rather than with other people. In his job, he writes love letters for people who either can’t be bothered to write them themselves.
And yet despite the blunt, unflattering treatise on modern ills, and the almost standard rom-com tropes, what we ultimately end up with is a genuinely sweet natured film with honest heart felt emotion. It’s a tough balancing act, but writer/director Spike Jonze has produced perhaps his sharpest film yet.
The (deservedly) Oscar nominated screenplay guides his star through a gamut of emotional turmoil. Joaquin Phoenix is at the top of his game here, bringing humor and innocence to a character that in other hands could easily come off as distant and moody. Phoenix is in nearly every scene in the film, with much of that in tight close up, and every emotional tick, every minute thought is delivered with precision and authenticity. It’s a great performance, and a surprise to me that he hasn’t been nominated for the big awards, since Her is just as much dependent on his performance as it is on Jonze’s creativity.
Scarlett Johansson adds warmth and, strangely, humanity to the film, drawing us in and making us believe, just as Twombly does, that there’s genuine emotion in this machine. Amy Adams is also invaluable, if underused, as a good natured best friend figure and the only real other person who it’s easy to connect with.
Visually, too, the film is wonderfully judged, the cinematography striking yet warm, framing of each shot inextricably linked to Theodores frame of mind at any given time. The beautiful final shot is an image I’d be happy to have on my wall. Likewise, the music, by Arcade Fire’s William Buttler is less a traditional orchestral score, more an ambient soundscape punctuated by brief flickers of piano, dripping with melancholy and reinforcing rather than hammering home the emotion.
Of course, it is possible to fault. At 126 minutes it runs a tad long and as mentioned; Amy Adams gets short changed in terms of screen time. But these few flaws aside, what we have here is a beautiful and thoughtful film, an observation on loneliness, isolation and the how modern technological innovations may not be the best way to remedy these woes. While in lesser hands this could have been a drab lecture, Jonze, together with his impeccable cast and technical crew, has managed to create a modern classic.
City Screen, where I saw this film, are still showing viewings over the course of the next week. For further information, do visit the website: http://www.picturehouses.co.uk/cinema/York_Picturehouse/film/Her