REVIEW: Her (2013)

After being pushed back for 3 weeks, Spike Jonze’s latest flick HER (2013) is finally released in UK cinemas today. Did anybody say Valentine’s Date? Let the love begin:

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A hollow metallic sound fills the air, rattling through the cinema, as if someone was hammering against the inside of an empty computer tower. An invisible hand scribbles three letters across the black screen: her. A man reads out a letter to a woman, a melody so intimate and beautiful, only love could have inspired its composer.

Her (2013) is Spike Jonze’s latest Sci-Fi masterpiece (!) about the personal letter author Theodore Twombly (Joacqin Phoenix) in futuristic Los Angeles. Left in loneliness after a rough divorce, he trusts his life into the wired “hands” of an intuitive operating system called Samantha, airily voiced by Scarlett Johansson’s memorable voice. Inevitably he falls for her custom-made character.

It sounds like the most unconventional love story of the year, yet in their relationship Theodore and Samantha face the usual obstacles: arguments, trust issues, secrets, those big three words and distance – battles that cause even more trouble without a body to fight with. Her portable digital eye fixed to his front pocket with a safety-pin – how old-school – he carries her around his world, shares his life, as if she was there; like in a never-ending Skype video chat. Their desire of being a “normal” couple culminates in not only the most surreal – imagine a mute surrogate lover – but also the most sensual sex-scene possible – hidden behind the black of Theodore’s closed eyes.

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Theodore’s world is dipped in scarlet shadows of cheerful passion, new-found enthusiasm and warm intellect. Sunlight falls through a red glass panel, covering his face in coral light. Splashes of red and yellow are everywhere – clothing, furniture, computer interfaces, street lights. Theodore’s new life glows with love and energy, but how does one feel for technology?
Samantha, after all, is a mechanic circuit. As much as she feels like a real person, she can’t be there. Her consciousness might be intuitive, capable to learn, but her ability to simultaneously interact with several thousand people makes her “brain” superior to Theodore’s. They are not of the same kind – over and over Theodore finds himself in a cold light; white, grey and blueish colours capture and surround him like thin layers of metal.

And yet, life with a machine is not as futuristic as this satire might suggest. In our present society our bodies merge with technology. Already, we use bluetooth devices, loudspeakers and in-built microphones to communicate freehand. We surrender our time management to our mobile phone’s applications, without electronic reminders we would even forget our mother’s birthday. Sharing personal content on social media platforms daily takes up more time than real-life face-to-face interaction. With a phone or a tablet in hand we form a hybrid of human and technology. Like a partner being the extension of our heart, the technological device is the extension of our bodies and minds. Technology already seems closer than humanity.

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Not so far-fetched, then, are Jonze’s depictions of human-technology interaction in his utopian Los Angeles. Intimate letters are composed by agencies like radio jingles, turning them into a service. Computers mimic handwriting, simulating human interaction which the clients can’t be bothered with. The limits of their technological devices dissolve into thin air. They are omnipresent companions, reality becomes an interface for individual gaming, planning, entertainment and love. Home computing systems manage their emails, play their music, scan their entire digital life and maybe even their offline presence. Like retrieved from a database of memories images of Theodore’s ex-wife flash soundless across the screen as if commanded to search ‘hashtag Catherine’. These images triggered by Theodore’s emotions are countered with slow poetic shots sparking feelings of happiness and the joy of togetherness – snow gently covering the earth in a white coat, a sunset dipping the ocean in a flaming golden shimmer. This change of speed illustrates Theodore’s emotional rollercoaster ride.

Gaining recognition as video artist and the director of music video milestones as the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage (1994) or Daft Punk’s Da Funk (1997), Jonze turned towards feature filmmaking in the late 90ies. His first feature film Being John Malkovich (1999) earned him an Academy Award nomination. Two films, Adaptation (2002) and Where the Wild Things Are (2009), later Her is Jonze’s fourth feature film – leaving the director once again high on the list for Oscar nominations.

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As is Joacquin Phoenix for his heart-warming performance of a sensitive poet fighting depression and loneliness by re-learning the joy of love. Adding colour to the character of Theodore Twombly, Phoenix convinces with his often naïve smile, the dreamy steel-blue eyes and the persuasive expression – his face becomes the window to his soul. His body brings Samantha to life – eventually Theodore is not the only one feeling her presence, the audience does so too. A remarkable achievement considering the unusual circumstances of shooting. Jonze likes to play with impossible characters – multiple John Malkovich’s in Being John Malkovich, a doubled Nicholas Cage in Adaptation, and now an invisible female lead, heard but not to be seen. Originally voiced by Samantha Morgan, the actress was kept out of Phoenix’s sight, leaving him with nothing but a voice to interact with; some times she wouldn’t even “act” live with him. Later Morton dropped out and Scarlett Johansson stepped in – giving an excellent performance, although portraying a voice-only character eliminates her chances for award nominations.

Theodore’s love for an intelligent machine, and Samantha’s capability of feeling symbolize today’s convergence of human and technology. How far are we from becoming like the uneven couple? Are we not already feeling deeply for our phones, tablets and computers? They ease our lives, they entertain us, they are with us at all times. If we look at our dependency on technology in our social behaviour, all we have to do is subtract our physical appearance and get – well, get an intuitive operating system like Samantha. Once again, the seemingly almighty Jonze steps in and opens our eyes.

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images via IMDB

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