Like all of the best speculative science fiction, Spike Jonze’s latest flick her is set in the future, but it’s really about right now. The film is one of those “what if” sci-fi tales and one feels a mere software update away from being a reality. Then, of course, with the project being a Spike Jonze joint, it’s also a strange, creepy, funny, beautiful and human story wrapped within an “out there” concept that shouldn’t lend itself to personal filmmaking. It is above all else a striking piece of work filled with concepts that only Jonze could dream up and expand in this specific way. It’s the first time the filmmaker has written a script entirely on his own and based on the results, it hopefully won’t be the last. Charlie Kaufman is going to have to get himself a new collaborator and thankfully, that’s not a bad thing.
So this concept I keep speaking about in reverential terms… It is a good one, hopefully worthy of my self-indulgent critical drooling. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man as sad and lonely as the mustache he sports on the poster suggests. His job is writing beautiful personalized notes for people incapable of expressing their own emotions. Of course, while Phoenix has no problem cranking those puppies out for others, he’s equally disconnected from his surroundings. He lives in a world where everyone is so hypnotized by their personal computer devices that they find it impossible to tear their eyes away from their screens long enough to make a real human connection (sound familiar?). Then a new product arrives: a sentient operating system that thinks, grows, and cares about its user. Phoenix picks it up immediately and soon the smoky, sexy sounds of Scarlett Johansson are ringing in his ear. She quickly cleans up his hard drive and sets him up on a blind date. But that doesn’t really work out, and as his computer starts to feel for his interpersonal dilemma, they fall in love. That’s right, it’s that old “boy meets computer” chestnut. The weird thing is that everyone in Phoenix’s life (well, his only two friends played by Chris Pratt and Amy Adams anyways) seem ok with this and even stranger, it seems as though human/operating system love is becoming common. The only person freaked out by the whole thing is Phoenix’s recently ex-wife Rooney Mara. She’s disgusted by Phoenix’s inability to connect, the same thing that made her grow out of their relationship. Then Johansson’s operating system starts to evolve at an exponential rate and… well… that’s never a good thing for a relationship, is it?
As speculative fiction, Her is an undeniably fascinating work. The depiction of technologically hypnotized humans hits chillingly close to home (as it should, for anyone writing or reading a magazine dedicated to videogames, right?). Jonze’s world is carefully designed speak directly to contemporary viewers, and his story could not be more timely. As usual, Jonze never lets the project settle comfortably into any particular genre formula either. It’s always touching, funny, and creepy simultaneously, leaving viewers mesmerized and unsure of where the tale will turn next. Then somewhere about two thirds of the way through, the film stops feeling like a sci-fi think piece and becomes a straight up tragic love story. That Jonze could do that is both a testament to the Phoenix’s heartbreaking performance done almost as a solo and Johansson’s impressive vocal performance that creates a vivid character without a body, as well as the filmmaker’s gifts as an emotional storyteller. Somehow you feel fully for this digital relationship, and as things wrap up the film proves not only to be about the perils of love in the digital age, but also the challenges of opening yourself up to the emotional vulnerability of a relationship and learning how to let go. It’s an incredibly heartfelt and personal, yet flippant piece of work. I suppose you could say that about everything Jonze has done since Being John Malkovich.
The music video directing veteran of course complements it all with some stunning visuals, especially the clever combination of Los Angeles and Shanghai skylines to create a gorgeously impersonal near future Metropolis. As I’ve made clear through gushing, it’s a wonderful movie, but not a perfect one. The film is too long and weighed down by endless solo dating montages in its saggy middle. It also feels like a story that deserved a harsher and more ironic ending rather that the fuzzy butterflies Jonze chose to wrap things up with. However, these are minor annoyances at worst and don’t detract from the fact that Jonze has created a truly magical movie of the moment that should fill any tech-loving viewer with food for thought as they watch it on their personal device of choice while avoiding contact with the outside world. Between this and Gravity, it’s been a hell of a year for sci-fi fans, providing two contemporary genre classics that could only have emerged from this specific moment in time. It’ll be a while before that happens again, so savor it people.