With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. Spike Jonze’s Her is up.
Her is a film about loneliness. This isn’t an unusual theme for a romantic comedy, yet one of the things which makes Her stand out from its derivative neighbours is the relentlessness with which it pursues the subject. The film’s protagonist Theodore, brought to life with an almost caricaturesque performance from Joaquin Phoenix, is alone for a good portion of the film’s runtime. Like many of us, Theodore has found solace in digital company. Where we might tap meaningless drivel into our phone, however, he increasingly relies in his newly purchased pseudo-sentient operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), to provide him with the social interaction which we all need to be psychologically sound human beings.
The conflict lies not in Theodore pursuing a relationship with a machine, but in his insistence on maintaining a romance with someone who simply isn’t there
Of course in Her, Theodore’s reliance on his computer for company spills over onto an actual romantic relationship. Seen in simple terms, then, the core of the film is a romantic relationship a man is having with his computer. But dig a little deeper, and we can see that really the conflict lies not in the idea of Theodore pursuing a relationship with a machine, but in his insistence on maintaining a romance with someone who simply is not there. His bitter ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) seems to sum Theodore up best with her brutal jab, “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real…”
This motif is played out in broad strokes across the movie. Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) is isolated despite being in a relationship – there is an emotional chasm between her and her partner that neither seems able to bridge. Theodore earns a crust by writing love letters for other people, so that they don’t have to. Samantha itself is isolated from humankind, though it gradually learns to accept itself. Johansson’s husky tones breathe sufficient life into inanimate objects, so one can be forgiven for believing Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is legitimate, somehow not impeded by her lack of a body. The melancholic reality, of course, is that her physical absence only reflects the absence of so much else in Theodore’s life: the absence of his estranged wife, of children, and of real and reciprocal love.
One of the fascinating things about Her is that, for a film with a unique vision of the future, it really is a meditation on problems we face today. Many of the film’s most lingering and beautiful shots are not CG images of the year 8,000 AD, but postcard pictures of scenes with which we are all familiar: sitting on the train alone and listening to music; lying on the beach and watching the sky; wandering through the city’s lights and sounds, phone in hand. And let’s not forget that Spike Jonze’s future LA is actually (for the most part) present day Hong Kong. That’s right, those cityscapes are real. You can go and see them, today.
Let’s not forget that Her’s future LA is actually (for the most part) present day Hong Kong. That’s right, those cityscapes are real. You can go and see them, today
One can easily imagine many of the scenes in the film playing out identically, only instead of speaking with Samantha, Theodore is chatting with an unknown, far-away woman he met on the internet. Her is challenging our idea of what it means to be alone. It’s asking us if our digital relationships are reciprocal, healthy, or ultimately even real. When you’re happily sending emoticons and pictures of ice cream (or whatever you kids are doing these days) into the eternal, black abyss, are you really speaking to someone, or are you just speaking to yourself? In a time when technology purports to bring us closer together, is it actually just making us more isolated, more self-conscious, and more lonely?
These are pretty profound questions for a 126-minute movie about a bloke who likes to knock one out to Scarlett Johansson’s voice, so let’s move on to the second most bloody fantastic thing about Her, which is how it looks.
This is a stunningly beautiful film. Her has all the spectacle required of modern cinema, but with none of the in-your-face obviousness that many directors employ. Much of the spectacle occurs in the background – enormous skyscrapers and forests blanketed in snow. And then there’s the film’s use of colour, which is not like the typical sci-fi palette at all. Warm pinks and oranges and innocent baby blues give the entire film a feeling of coziness. Here is a vision not of a political future, but a human one; a future dominated by the eternal concerns of love, loss and our personal struggles, not grand battles between the forces of good and evil.
Her is about loneliness, but it is also a soft film, a kind film, and a sensitive film. It is a beautiful and touching experience
This feels like a much more accurate picture of our future than The Hunger Games. And after years of apocalyptic bell ringing, it is somehow comforting to watch. The first time you finish the film, it feels a little bit like you’ve just been given a big hug and told that everything is going to be OK. That’s a pretty unique proposition these days, when most films don’t make viewers feel much other than extremely anxious, or frightened, or disappointed. Her is about loneliness, but it is also a soft film, a kind film, and a sensitive film. It is a beautiful and touching experience, and a story that almost every millennial will connect with on some level. It was, by far, the film of the year.
All images: Warner Bros