Her (2013) is a Sci-Fi film written and directed by Spike Jonze. It chronicles the exploits of a professional “greeting card writer”, Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix), living in a future society where smart phones have been overtaken by Siri-like Earbuds. Unable to bear the strenuous challenge of scrolling through their own problems, lazy civilization has invented technology, known as Operating Systems, to do it for them. As you walk down the street of this evolved society, everyone is plugged into their OS, unabashedly conversing with it as they organise their life.
Theodore, finding himself with no true direction after his breakup, does what many of us are guilty of: downloads an app to sort himself out. The app in question is the new OS1, the first Artificially Intelligent Operating System.
Immediately after downloading, Theodore is entranced by Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the voice behind his new system. Throughout the film, they fall in love. The audience sees Theodore and Samantha redefining a ‘romantic relationship’ as they participate in all the usual activities; Heartfelt conversations, dating (even double dates!), and sex, while navigating the struggles associated with Dating Someone Without A Body.
This ‘relationship’ is the focus of the film, however it also discusses the impact of this new environment on the relationships of his friends (Amy Adams and Matt Letscher) and his divorce with his wife (Rooney Mara).
As for the production of the film, Spike Jonze’s writing is exceptional, well deserving of his Oscar. Joaquin Phoenix gave a terrific performance as the passionate yet lost Theodore. Amy Adams shone as the frazzled and fed-up Amy and Chris Pratt was amusing as the receptionist. Scarlett Johansson brought a vulnerability and strength to the role- quite a feat when you only have your voice to work with. Hoyte Van Hoytema did an incredible job as director of photography.
The film delivers an interesting contrast in the existential musings of Samantha, a computer, and Theodore, a human. In early conversation, Samantha expresses concern about her individuality: ” Are my feelings real, or are they just programming?” Jonze exploits the seriousness of the dialogue by emphasising the absurdity of the situation. Like when Theodore rebuffs Samantha’s attempts at intimacy by stating: “I’m not in the place to commit to anything serious”. Jonze uses comedy to make the audience question this technology-dependent Utopian society. In this way, he forces the audience to consider the impact that technological development can, and will, have on our way of communicating.
An excellent example of the use of comedy to highlight the ridiculous is when Theodore, alone and experiencing insomnia, calls “SexyKitten” (Kristen Wiig) to chat to. It begins as harmless sexy talk, but then leads to intense weirdness as Theodore’s encouraged to imagine he is strangling his sexual partner with a dead cat. Phoenix’s reaction to this bizarre instruction is highly amusing, and reminded me of the “lip my stocking’ gag in Lost in Translation. This is one of many examples throughout the film where the deliberate weirdness unsettles the audience, highlighting the strangeness of the society.
The invention of the “letter writing” profession only enforces the impact that advances in technology have had on our ability to communicate. Society has long past abbreviating their messages in text form, now they simply pay people to write their messages for them. As well as highlighting society’s extreme laziness due to technology, it also shows a society concerned with perfectionism: Nicely written messages are more desired than true feelings.
In turn, Theodore’s profession as a letter writer allows us to understand his character further. A man who has difficulty revealing his true emotions spends his career writing about fake emotions for someone else. Letter writing is a form of escapism for Theodore- he can’t deal with his own romantic problems, so he immerses himself in other peoples’.
Jonze’s writing and film is ultimately a clever satire of technology’s impact on society, and an original take on the science fiction genre. Although not a regular viewer of science fiction, I tend to associate it with topics like time travel, space travel, aliens and parallel universes- traditional Dr Who stuff. Her, however, transverses the ‘traditional Sci-Fi film’. Although it deals with futuristic settings, there’s none of that fake life or death nonsense, rather one man trying to find love and fulfillment in a society where human communication is discourages. Because all the OS technology is simply an advanced derivative of our current technology, the film’s actually believable, and therefore affects us more.
In English last year I studied a topic of ‘Alienation in the Urban Environment’. While watching this film I was reminded of Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian. In this 1951 short story, A man walks along his street at night, watching house after house filled with lifeless people staring at the television. The man is subsequently arrested by an unmanned police car and sent to a psychiatric home. In their writing (and directing), Bradbury and Jonze both convey a fear of a technology filled future.
Imagine you’re flicking through TV, searching for something to watch. Two shows interest you: A Shakespearean play, or a trashy reality TV show. Although reality television might appeal to your hedonistic side which desires easy entertainment, Shakespeare will deliver an interesting, complex, and challenging performance. This allegory refers to the experience of watching Her. Like Birdman and Life of Pi, It’s a beautifully made film that leaves you thinking, however not something I want to see again.
“The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”
“I think anybody who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.”