There was a time when filmmakers didn’t have to worry about the constraints of reality when approaching the future of technology, and instead used their films as little more than tools to gauge the public paranoia of the time. Stanley Kubrick in 2001 envisaged a time when super-computers could grow to be smarter than the people who use them (how quaint that seems now), while the badly dated 80’s movies Electric Dreams and Weird Science imagined an era when people could not only fall in love with computers, but ones with personalities that they had created themselves. In this regard, Spike Jonze‘s new film Her isn’t an original concept – but it’s vision of a not-too-distant future seems believable and plausible in a way where the other films (2001 excepted) seem kitsch, and it’s views on the future of love and relationships is a terrifying vision of what’s to come- if we’re not at that stage as a society already.
Joaquin Phoenix, in yet another barnstorming performance, stars as Theodore Twombly, a man whose job is to ghost-write love letters for people who are emotionally inarticulate. He’s unparalleled at this job (he eventually gets a book of his letters published) and yet is having difficulty expressing himself following a break-up with his wife of five years (Rooney Mara). In a bid to get over the divorce, he purchases a new operating system (Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johnansson) initially so he can have someone else to talk to. Needless to say, with a personality designed to match his every need, they eventually start one of the more unconventional relationships in cinema history. It is also one of the most realistic, using science-fiction concepts to discuss the mechanics of relationships (and their inevitable fall-outs) in a way not seen since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Despite the fact one of the parties in the relationship is a piece of artificial intelligence “without a human form” the film still goes through the same plot mechanics as you would expect in a traditional romantic drama (although there are still moments of lowbrow humour you would expect from the man whose last screenwriting credit was Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, not least an early phone-sex scene with a Kristen Wiig voice cameo). When it gets to the inevitable sex scene, Jonze cuts to a black screen, so all the audience can hear are two voices in a moment that feels emotionally honest, and one that’s open to interpretation depending on where you stand on the glass half full/empty debate (could it be that we are seeing the sex scene from Samantha’s point of view? She sees nothing and yet is programmed to express her love in the way her user has programmed to). At a time when independent cinema is constantly using perceivably full penetration sex scenes to explore the grim excesses of human sexuality (see Blue is the Warmest Colour, Nymphomaniac, Stranger by the Lake) the most realistic depiction of sexuality is merely implied.
Her is a film that will reward repeat viewings, and has far more to say than I could express in one review, with important cases to be made about how it taps into male emotional insecurities in the internet pornography age. One point I would like to express in further detail is the fact that the film is set in a non-specified year. With a recent BBC documentary about the decreasing birth rate in Japan being attributed to both a decreasing interest in relationships and a growing male pre-occupation with video games that offer virtual relationships only a few steps removed from the one explored in the film, it appears to me like the film is an account of relationships in the modern age. The documentary said that these social trends had now crossed continents, with birth rates decreasing in several major European cities at similar rates to those in Japan. Her may look like a quirky romantic comedy, but it is ultimately bleak (albeit heartfelt) as it appears to acknowledge these trends. One scene sees Theodore sitting down on the steps of a train station, only to realise all the men walking past him are speaking to OS’s via headphones and headsets. In a culture numbed by mindless pornography, anything resembling a conventional relationship is pointless when all your sexual attractions are available at a click of a button, and the next logical step for emotional devolution is designing faceless beings you can programme into loving and caring about you.
One of the crucial aspects of all science fiction is that machines can not develop human emotions, and can never grow to love under any circumstances. Her suggests that they can do something worse- they can mimic them. If I’ve described anything that sounds cold and calculated, I apologise – it is one of the most human films to be released in some time and one of the very few films released that actually feels relevant to the modern age.