Monday, January 20, 2014


2013, Spike Jonze -- in theatre

I thought I knew what I was getting into with Her. The advertisements seemed to indicate an awkward loner (oddly dressed and crudely mustachioed) falling in love with his SIRI-esque mobile app.  Of course I also knew it was a Spike Jonze film and that appearances can be, and often are deceiving.  His films may rely upon simple-to-grasp concepts, but rarely (well, never actually) are they emotionally simplistic, and even that easy-to-grasp concept tends to lead the way to richer, more stimulating ones.

Her decimated my expectations within the first five minutes, where we're introduced to Jaoquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly spilling his heart out with romantic sentiments, dictating them to a computer, which then prints them out with the appearance of a handwritten letter.  He places this letter into an envelope, and along with the other output from his workday, he places atop a large glowing cube -- a sort of scanner -- and then are dropped into it.  Twombly works for a service that provides heartfelt, personalized letters from its clients.  It seems an odd profession, but never are we given the sense that it's a marginalized one, and the company seems to be an ongoing concern for nearly a decade.

Twombly, for his part, seems a very thoughtful and sensitive person, but not exclusively so.  He engages in conversation with a coworker (played by the always enjoyable Chris Pratt) and it's easy to see that he's as personable in his life as he is in his letters.  Perceptions completely dashed.  When Twombly returns home, the state of his otherwise impressive flat immediately conveys his recent breakup, as does a voice message from his friend and neighbour Amy (Amy Adams) inviting him to a party and setting him up on a date.

The film takes its time establishing Twombly's world, his funk, and the world around him before introducing OS1, the new operating system on the market that features a fully realized artificial intelligence capable of learning and growing...not just an app, but a friend.  Twombly buys the product, and after a few establishing questions, out crops the voice of Scarlett Johannson who names herself Samantha.  Samantha quickly establishes herself not as a robotic presence, but a personality, one that immediately demonstrates a sense of self-awareness, a sense of curiosity, and a sense of humour.  Perhaps not desperate for companionship, but certainly welcome of it, especially within the rather safe confines of dealing with someone who isn't truly there.

From there, Twombly's relationship with Samantha grows with near relentless conversation.  She becomes an essential part of his life but there's a constant struggle within the film about whether Samantha is a fully conscious being or if she's programmed for appeasing.  As the film progresses, Jonze never shies from exploring the ideas of artificial intelligence, how capable they are and how quickly they can learn and grow, and even how emotional they can become.  They may not be human but they can evolve to emulate humanity exceptionally well, yet still not confined to human limitations.  Just as she does intellectually, Samantha also rapidly grows her emotional intellect, and she's able to resolve emotional turmoil a lot faster than Theodore.

Jonze does a lot of things masterfully in this film.  He avoids so many common cliches of artificial intelligence, the malevolent Hal 9000, the world conquering Terminators, the wanna-be-a-real-boy Data from Start Trek:TNG, and the ethical/civic parable of I, Robot not even registering as part of the equation.  Jonze approaches the subject matter subtly, and all through the metaphoricle eyes of a character we never see.  More of the impact of artificial intelligence happens in the background of the film as, at first, Twombly is the only one, or one of few walking around engaging with his mobile device, but scene after scene shows the growth of the AI in society.  As more people engage with their AIs, the more accepted relationships with them becomes, even romantic ones.  It's not universal, but it's more widely and commonly appreciated than not.

One of the elements of Jonze's world here seems to be a focus on communication, and the power of words.  Filmed in Shanghai (but standing in for LA), there seems to be a dearth of advertising, and television seems to be obsolete.  Twombly receives news over his earpiece, and he plays a holographic videogame which seems to be as much about developing a relationship with the characters as accomplishing objectives.  The point of the film is hammered home in the sex scene between Twombly and Samantha, which fades to black and we only hear the lovers utterances as they communicate.  It's a captivating scene, intimate and honest, and sexier than almost any flashes of skin most films provide.

What I didn't expect out of Her was a science-fiction film, and it's as much SF as it is a romance, or a comedy, or a drama.  One of the key indicators of this is not just Shanghai's almost retro-futuristic appearance (the choices for settings and locations were amazing) or the subtle advances in technology, but the wardrobe and style of the film.  As fashion cycles and eats itself and keeps cropping back up but in different ways, the outfits in Her are firmly inspired by the mid-80's aesthetic, collarless, loose-fitting button-downs and ugly sweaters, along with mustaches and moussed hair.  At the same time the pants adopt the high-waistedness of 1920's but with sweatpants-inspired banded ankles.  It's like if Tom Ford were designing comfort wear.  The style of the film is both retro and futuristic which fully works to its advantage.

The story of Her carries through to its natural resolution, and it's a balanced one that doesn't disappoint.  It carries through the idea of what an emotional relationship with a liberated AI would be like and where it would end up.  It's sweet, rich and beautiful, with just a hint of tentativeness.  Jonze has made only three features prior to this, but each has their own sustaining merits, primarily being unique.  What Jonze does is generally successful (at least in terms of what he's trying to achieve) but is rarely commercially so, thus there's not a lot of emulators out there.  This is perhaps his most fully realized story, with his most developed characters... and in that regards, I guess this is indeed his best (if not most memorable) film.