“Her” – A Review

29 Dec

HerHer is not about Facebook. It’s not about Twitter. It’s not about phone sex – though there is phone sex in it. It is not about the scourge of modern technology and how it is dehumanizing us. If you are a luddite looking for a film that dismisses our increasing reliance in an online world as the death of human connectivity, this is definitely not the movie for you. If you are a cynic, this is not the movie for you. Her is the antithesis of cynicism.

Her is about what one of its character describes as “a socially acceptable form of insanity.” It’s about love. Not necessarily a capital “L” love. It is not the cynically faux love of 98% of romantic comedies that are spit out by the Hollywood dream machine every year. In those films, love is easy, but getting to it is difficult. With the generic RomCom, love is an end in and of itself, with certain stumbling blocks – the parents don’t like him, they come from different social strata, they work together at the NSA and already know way too much about each other – being the typical cinematic conflicts that must be overcome. One only has to read this article about the atrocity known as Love, Actually to understand everything that is wrong with modern romantic films.

But here’s a wake-up call to all the screenwriters and filmmakers who trade in this noisome nonsense: love ain’t easy. It doesn’t have to be hard either. But it does involve work. Love is about discovery, both self-discovery and discovery of another, it is sharing oneself with another, compromise that may seem anathema to the single and loveless. Love, as defined by our storytellers, is only about half of the marriage vows: good times, health, richer, and usually the whole “to death do us part” is left for the intentionally unmade sequel. Once the love is consummated – either literally or figuratively – there are no more struggles in life. No bills to pay, no doctor’s appointments that don’t go as smoothly as one had hoped, no fights or arguments about petty things like who gets the last egg roll. And most importantly, once love is attained, once the two have stated their affections for each other, these two people become one. Suddenly, individual desires and wants are unnecessary. Oh, it is true that he wants certain things and she wants certain things. But rarely in the movies do individual desires clash. Nothing is more important than the relationship, not even their own individual battles for self-definition and actualization.

And fine, let them eat cake – sweet and fattening, with no nutritional value whatsoever. We all deserve a bit of cinematic escapism. I can watch giant robots fight giant lizards in Pacific Rim, you can watch Katherine Heigl pursue Channing Tatum through the surprisingly dry avenues of Venice. We all deserve a break.

Once in a while a movie comes along that challenges these pre-conceived notions of what love actually is. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was one of those. In that film, we follow two not particularly likeable characters as they eschew the love they once had, only to crave it again once they forgot about it. When I originally saw the trailer for Her, I expected something similar. The director, Spike Jonze, had worked with Eternal Sunshine’s writer Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Those films’ complex narratives are nowhere to be seen in Her. On the contrary, Jonze – who both wrote and directed this film – has made a movie of simple plot but complex philosophy.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a recently divorced man who creates personalized letters for people who are either too busy or too uninspired to write to their loved ones. He is a lonely man who goes from home to work and back again in a state of near total apathy. His friends try to set him up on dates, but he tends to resist. Then he gets a new operating system for his computer, one billed as the first with artificial intelligence. When booted he meets the OS – Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Samantha seems real, she is funny, clever, and quite endearing. There seems to be an almost instant bond between her and Theodore. And it is here that the ultimate in suspension of disbelief takes place. There have been plenty of films that have dealt with artificial intelligences and whether they are real: 2001, The Terminator, A.I. Only the last one asks the question of whether the main character is “real,” as in “just as real as a human being.”

The immediate question that I asked while watching Her was whether this Samantha was real, or whether she was merely really well-programmed. But then I realized that we human beings are just really well-programmed as well: DNA, our complex synaptic system, life experiences, all these things make us who we are. The result of all those billions of pieces of data is what some call a soul.

So the question soon becomes: does Samantha have a soul?

Whether or not she does, Theodore starts to believe so. In fact, he begins to date her. True, she has no body, but an earpiece and a camera become her methods of communication and information gathering, and soon she and Theodore are a real couple.

To the movie’s vast credit, it takes this relationship seriously. The feelings between Samantha and Theodore are real. They actually care for one another. Theodore is easy to care for. He’s kind of a loveable teddy bear, someone you just want to give a big hug to and tell him that everything is going to be okay. But I was surprised – very pleasantly surprised – to discover that I cared almost equally for the disembodied voice of Samantha. Much of the credit goes to Johansson, who has this kind of sweet, goofy charm in her voice. But it is the relationship between the two characters that serves to raise her character above the simplicity of the circuit board. They actually love one another, and in our own way we love them back.

Furthermore, Theodore’s friends seem to accept their relationship without any judgment. Some are fascinated by him dating an operating system, others – like his friend Amy, played by Amy Adams – are really happy that he has found someone. Where so many movies – not to mention society in general – likes to tell us what love actually is, this movie is brave enough to let the characters discover love in their own way and to not be judged for it.

The film is described as a “science fiction romance,” but it is sci-fi in the softest way possible. Set in a Los Angeles (and shot both there and in Shanghai) in some not too distant (ten years, I’d say) future, the look of film is every-so-slightly futuristic, reminiscent of Goddard’s film Alphaville that created its sci-fi look merely by shooting in front of the right futuristic looking buildings. More inexplicable than falling in love with a computer, the fact that most of these Angelenos take public transportation might be Her’s biggest fantastical leap in logic.

Samantha does not have a body. She does not eat and she and her boyfriend cannot share a nice meal. Theodore can’t actually have sex with her. He can never really hold her. And while she can grow in knowledge and spirit, Samantha will not age or die like people will. The movie presents us with this conundrum: can the love they have – for it truly is love – be as real, as important, as significant, as true, as that with a human being of flesh and blood? Thankfully, the film lets the audience ponder the answer to that question on its own.

That is what makes the movie so beguiling: in not judging these characters, and by not spoon feeding us trite simplistic answers, the film leaves us not with a sense of strict resolution, but of open-ended possibilities. Like Eternal Sunshine, almost a decade ago, and unlike just about every romantic comedy since, Her allows us to imprint our own feelings upon Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, and in some ways make it our own. And the questions we ask are not just about the movie, but about ourselves as well. That is what great art will do. By making us ponder our own lives and our own romances, Her shows us that love is not actually the answer.

Love is a question. It always has been.

Grade: A

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