Or "How to sneak a sci-fi film into the Best Picture list"
Don’t let the loose overview that “it’s about a man who falls in love with his computer” put you off, Her is a striking new romantic drama from director Spike Jonze.Equal parts intimate and insightful, it offers up a wonderfully alternative look at love, relationships, self-awareness and, basically, life itself. It could so easily be charting a regular romance, following the highs and lows of a fledgling couple; fighting, against the odds – amidst both welcome support and judgmental criticism from their friends – to stick together. To make it work.Jonze’s screenplay – which, if there is any justice in the world, will beat out ALL competitors (and easily best the recent Bafta-winner American Hustle) to win an Oscar – is a stunning piece of writing; a masterwork. He’s crafted a beautiful love story, about a man and a machine, which playfully mirrors relationships we all know and are familiar with, and from which the very lead character himself has just come out of. And he does all of this, within the colourful setting of the future.
It’s 2025 and Theodore Twombly works at a company which provides ‘handwritten’ letters on behalf of family and loved ones, writing some of the most beautiful, heartfelt prose for other people; showing immense sensitivity in his creations for others, but finding his own personal interactions limited, particularly since his recent split with his wife. Refusing to sign the divorce papers, he still hasn’t let go of the past, but when a new next generation Operating System is announced, he buys it oblivious to the effect that it will have on his life. Introduced to the self-named Samantha, he soon finds that this Artificial Intelligence-driven O/S is far more advanced than he could have ever anticipated, as she insinuates herself into every aspect of his life, and goes from what could have been just an advanced Siri model to the most hands-on personal assistant imaginable, and, eventually, the closest thing to a best friend that Theodore could lay claim to. When Samantha starts to display behaviour that suggest that she would like to be more than just friends, however, their lives both change forever.
You don’t just find this human/AI relationship believable, you get drawn right into it as well.
It takes some serious skills to combine romance and sci-fi in such a way as to, at the end of the film, leave you equally in awe of the scope of the sci-fi concepts as you are warmed by the life-changing romance of it all. Making a film about, on the face of it, a man falling in love with his O/S is a hell of a feat in and of itself, but Jonze adds in so many more layers, stewing them all together in a beautiful blend of age-old traditions and futuristic conceits; relationship paradigms and blow-your-mind existentialism.
Whether it’s the idea that we’ll be so locked into the habit of recycling past fashions in the future that we’ll have returned to 30s-style trouser-waists-above-the-stomach (Simon Cowell-style) and pyjamas that look like the kind of long-johns that only people in Westerns would wear, or the way that our homes and workplaces will essentially look like they have been designed by Apple on acid, Jonze’s vision of the very near future is cleverly down-to-earth, whilst at the same time remaining undoubtedly pointed in its satirical reflection of our current trends. In his future, the idea of falling in love with your O/S is far from ridiculous, it’s actually pretty normal. That’s how isolated, introverted and married-to-their-own-technology people have become. And yet, the beauty of the film is that Jonze doesn’t just paint the relationship as normal only within this context, he makes it palpably understandable for us.
You don’t just find this human/AI relationship believable, you get drawn right into it as well, feeling wounded when the characters hurt one another; uncomfortable as they display signs of growing apart; hopeful as they determine to forge on together; and reminiscent as they mirror many similar emotions that you will have – at one stage or another – gone through yourself.
Jonze isn’t unfamiliar with this ballpark, having written and directed the short film, I’m Here, about a future where humans and robots co-exist, where two robots fall in love and things don’t go particularly smoothly for them. He’s also previously proven how insightful he is with his earlier effort, the quaint but compelling Being John Malkovich, although this is a vastly different feature, only skirting on the border of the kind of surreal hilarity of Malkovich in its quest for the truth about relationships. In fact, it’s only the slight comedy dipped into during first act – and perhaps the sheer length of time devoted to developing the relationship during the middle act – that come close to preventing this piece from being a perfected creation.
Joaquim Phoenix has proven time and again to be an impressive watch, and here he has the challenge of almost single-handedly driving the momentum of the piece, as the slightly awkward Theodore, whose search for companionship – and happiness – is an elusive one. Replacing Samantha Morton in post-production is Scarlett Johansson who, to give her credit, side-lines her now-archetypal vamp persona in favour of the kind of warm, cute, friendly, caring and sensitive soul that we frankly haven’t seen since Lost in Translation. Perhaps not having her on-screen, pouting and sashaying as she seems unable to stop doing (have you seen her poster for Captain America 2?!), was a blessing, as – free of these shackles; the demands of Hollywood perhaps accentuating her own seemingly looks-defined behaviour – she actually gets down to doing some genuine acting. Her chemistry with Phoenix feels genuine (made more impressive by the fact that he wasn’t even acting with her during the production); her love and hurt, her questions and answers.
It’s as if this were a film between a guy and a girl on a phone, not a girl in a phone.
No, Her may just be one of the most overlooked, atypical features of this first quarter of the year, promoting itself in such a disarming fashion, when the reality is that Jonze and co. have snuck into the Awards season a genuine sci-fi contender, which marries futuristic concepts with existential conundrums; life-changing questions with life-changing romance, and does so with grace and beauty, and innovation and insight.
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