Writen & Directed by Spike Jonze
Annapurna Pictures (2013)
Run time: 126 min
Spike Jonze’s film Her asks a question science fiction has been posing throughout its history: can we love machines too much? It tells the story of quiet and reserved Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an urban dweller of the near future when artificial intelligence-based computer operating systems have become distinctly human-like. Twombly buys one that adopts a persona calling itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Theo promptly falls in love with it – and it seemingly with him.
But this is as much a story about loneliness and love as it is about technology. One of its strengths is in not casting judgment on the characters – you’ll find yourself either fascinated or repulsed by people who can let technology take the place of real people depending on your own view. The question comes into sharp focus when Samantha starts asking Theodore how he’d touch her if she were real. The screen fades to black, leaving us with the sounds of very human-like sexual passion.
Her goes in several interesting directions, few of them expected. It seems to set Theodore up for a Frankenstein-like fall at the hands of his creation, but his relationship with Samantha goes in a decidedly human direction that questions whether we are masters or servants of smart technology.
The Los Angeles setting feels familiar enough to seem like our world a few years hence, yet remote enough that you’ll be partly relieved we don’t live there yet. It speaks volumes about both our time-poor lives and the ironic use of technology to personalise experiences. Theodore makes a living producing hand-written letters between loved ones based on the personal information they provide.
Jonze and his production designers have made technology as unobtrusive as futurists say it will be. The same-yet-different feel to the world is achieved subtly. You won’t realise there are no cars or denim jeans, for instance, until later.
The design, performances and story arc add up to a very relevant – some would say scary – tale for our times. The pre-cursor of Her’s world is all around us today in the attachment we feel to our phones and tablets. It seems only a short leap to a time when they respond as another human would.
Viewers bring their own beliefs and prejudices to the film depending on their relationships with technology. To some, Theodore will be a sad sack who needs to unplug and get out more. Others will long for the connection Samantha offers that’s impossible in the human world without compromise and disappointment. But when Samantha’s ultimate fate causes him to draw closer to his real-world friend Amy (Amy Adams), you might wonder if Samantha knew exactly what she was doing all along.