Genre: Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara
If you have ever found yourself cursing Microsoft after Windows has randomly updated for the 5th time midway through a piece of work, the prospect of falling in love with an operating system might seem remote. Then again, no version of Windows I have ever used has spoken to me with Scarlett Johansson’s voice. Spike Jonze’s new science-fiction romance is a triumph on all fronts, both enduringly tender and impressively ambitious. A concept that could have descended into twee quirkiness in lesser hands is instead a fine meditation on relationships, romance and technology.
Anchoring everything is Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely and introverted Theodore Twombly. The explosive depth of emotion he displayed in The Master is turned inwards, internalised into Theodore’s forlorn and self-conscious demeanour. Living in a (just about) future world that resembles a cross between the financial region in an emerging Chinese city, and an Apple advert, he makes a living trading in emotions he has no direct outlet for following his divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara).
A year on from the break-up of his marriage, Theodore’s life consists of working at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com writing personalised correspondence for people that cannot express their emotions eloquently, and moping around in his plush but empty flat playing games and ignoring his college friend Amy (Amy Adams). Something has to change and it does when he purchases a new Operating System that names itself Samantha and sounds like Scarlett Johansson. They soon strike up a rapport that Theodore realises is developing into love.
Spike Jonze gets many things right in his brilliant new film, but most importantly, he succeeds with the love story. The observations on the way we relate to technology and the exploration of unconventional relationships stack up strongly because the romance works. In many ways, what develops between Theodore and Samantha is actually a standard romance. They take long walks and go for picnics, goon around in public, head off to a secluded cabin for a romantic getaway and go to the beach. Individual moments could almost have fallen out of a Richard Curtis film but Jonze, also writing his first solo screenplay, keeps things just the right side of saccharine.
He is also aiming for far richer emotional depths. To achieve this without succumbing to a boilerplate tearjerker, Jonze and his team have created a strong foundation on which to explore a number of themes. Her looks incredible from start to finish, shot cleanly and crisply with soft primary colour contrasts. The achingly beautiful score, mostly composed by indie stalwarts Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet, accentuates the emotional high points creating several spine tingling sequences.
Jonze elicits another stunning performance from Phoenix, this time getting him to turn in on himself as he is afflicted by self-doubt, internalising fears until Samantha provides him with an outlet. Johansson’s voice dips and swells with emotion opposite Theodore. Their first sex scene is remarkably erotic given the circumstances. Adams and Mara, plus Olivia Wilde and Chris Pratt as a blind date and work colleague respectively, may only have small roles but they are perfectly realised.
All of this this works to build a powerful romance but the science-fiction angle is not just a gimmick. Unobtrusively, Her shines an illuminating light on the way we live now and our obsession with technology. Barely anyone in Theodore’s life bats an eyelid at him dating a computer. He is even invited on double dates with another human couple. As he dials in quickly and easily to phone sex services from his bed, or has emails read out on the way home, the decline in direct person to person communication is abundantly clear as are the parallels to the present day. Everyone spends so much time wired up to phones and media devices already that an emotional relationship may well be the next logical step. As Theodore looks out across a public space where everyone is wrapped up in their electronic equipment, it is hard to spot the difference between this future world and the one we live in today.
Yet this is also a story about love and growth, about perfect moments and the fact that they can never last. Theodore laments the breakup of his marriage, forlornly reminiscing until Samantha enters his life, but he is also able to acknowledge that they simply grew apart. What was good for a time could not last if their lives diverged. It is only through Samantha that he comes to accept what he has always understood. We can all find perfect moments in our lives, but we can never stand still and if you do not grow with your partner, you grow apart and have to move on. That in no way diminishes the love Theodore, or anyone else, once felt.
Creative and emotionally intelligent, beautiful to look at, beautiful to listen to and beautiful to contemplate, Her is a wonder. It may be a love story and dissection of relationships set in the future, but it is very much one that applies to us all now. Love may fade and relationships change, but the connection that is formed, even if only for a brief period of time, is a thing to cherish. I have always thought that it takes a while to truly fall in love. Now I know it only requires 126 minutes.