Her is a difficult film to review. Some people will buy into the premise of a man falling in love with his computer, and be genuinely moved. Others will find the whole thing just a bit creepy. I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle. Writer-director Spike Jonze plays with this tension, delicately teasing out insights about our relationship with the virtual world. But he is careful to avoid a preachy social allegory, and instead offers something richer and more tragic.
This wouldn’t be possible without two brilliant performances, delivered by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. I doubt that any other casting choice would have worked for either role. Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a sweet man who wears pastels. He lives in a futuristic Los Angeles, and writes for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a gentle reminder that almost anything can be purchased online. Despite his horn-rimmed glasses, high-waisted trousers, and 1970s B-list porn star moustache, Theo’s taste in women is decidedly ambitious. Going through a breakup with Rooney Mara, and unwilling to commit to Olivia Wilde, he can only connect with one woman: Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, his Operating System (OS).
Phoenix’s performance is at once whimsical and sad. We never get to see Theo’s wounds, but we sense their depth. It makes perfect sense that his version of the perfect women exists exclusively in cyberspace. Samantha organises his emails, doesn’t hesitate to perform “aural” sex, and appears genuinely interested in everything he has to say. The fact that she doesn’t have a body is made to seem insignificant; Johansson’s voice gives her character life. It’s crackling, sensual, and imperfect, enough to create the illusion of her humanness. Samantha isn’t a cipher, but at the same time she doesn’t ask anything of Theodore. The relationship remains almost entirely about him.
Perhaps that is what makes the film’s resolution inevitable. There’s a lot of talk, arguably a half-hour too much. And Phoenix, though entirely convincing, spends a lot of time gazing ahead and looking wistful. It’s interesting to see how Theo and Samantha attempt to navigate the challenges faced by ordinary couples, like when Samantha, eager to spice things up, finds a sex surrogate online to fill in for her body. But it’s difficult to see past the absurdity of the situation when they’re trying to be serious. And Theo eventually has to face this reality, as he realises the impossibility of a personal connection to an impersonal computer. It’s up to Samantha to be the mature one and finally dispel the illusion.
Her reverses the relationship between human and cyborg that has come to define the science fiction genre. While Blade Runner is about the identity crisis robots face, Samantha is by far the film’s most self-assured character. Everyone else is out to seduce their OS, or become BFFs. As humans scurry around trying to nab a virtual date or get more followers on Twitter, we’re forced to question whether social media makes our lives easier, or just provides new ways for us to be awkward and insecure.
I don’t think Her is a cautionary tale, despite Samantha’s frightening resemblance to Siri. Ultimately, Jonze’s film reminds us that the same anxieties, foibles, and needs will always be part of being human, though we might convince ourselves technology has made us immune.
Her is now showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse