Talented writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is grieving the breakdown of his marriage. Somewhat shy, he retreats into a virtual world and falls for ‘Samantha’ (Scarlett Johansson), an operating system. As his feelings for Samantha deepen, he is surprised at the depth of Samantha’s feelings for him and the artificial nature of her intelligence seems incongruous with how sentient a participant she is in their relationship. But the shine of the honeymoon period starts to dull and they encounter both human issues and digital issues.
Holograms and Screens
Phoenix is unbelievably wholesome as Theodore. Initially, it seems unfathomable that his wife rejected him and that there is not a queue of fair maidens beating a path to his glass-fronted apartment overlooking futuristic LA. But as his character develops, Phoenix reveals Theodore to be a clever yet modest soul to whom social engagement does not come easily. Happier in the virtual world than the physical world, he seems lonely but in fact, saves his charisma for interactions with the fun Samantha and grumpy (but cute) aliens with colourful language. But Phoenix does have a lonely job; interactions with other (non-virtual) cast members are minimal and despite Johansson playing the title role, he is the focus and rarely off-camera. His portrayal of a man who is a key player in a world of holograms and screens yet whose sensitivity makes him vulnerable in the physical world, is touching.
What is 'Real'?
Director, writer and producer Spike Jonze has set ‘Her’ in the not-too-distant future. He takes today’s technology and pushes it one step further along its current trajectory. The virtual world already exists and is arguably as real as the world we call ‘real’. Thanks to the digital revolution, technology is woven into the fabric of our lives and charming aesthetics aside, Theodore’s evenings spent on virtual quests reflect scenes played out in many of today’s households. We cannot call current artificial intelligence ‘sentient’ but this is not a new theme: Data in ‘Star Trek’, C-3PO and R2D2 in ‘Star Wars’, Kryten the robot and Rimmer the hologram in ‘Red Dwarf’, to name a few. It may be sci-fi, but many scientific advances owe their existence to the genre, if only to plant the seed of inspiration. Given its sci-fi footing, it is noteworthy that Theodore’s job is to write personal letters on behalf of others. Already considered a dying art form, its demise must have reached crisis point in ‘Her’. No coincidence, either, that whereas Theodore facilitates communication between others, he himself struggles to communicate on a personal level.
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (‘Let the Right One In’) and Jonze were keen to ensure that blue - typical sci-fi colour - did not dominate. Use of orange gives the film a happy vibe and soft filters ensure a gentleness, reflective of Theodore’s character and the romantic storyline.
But Where Are We Heading? And What Do We Want?
A sweet romance on the surface, this is a thought-provoking piece raising two significant questions. Firstly, in what direction is artificial intelligence heading? Secondly, what do we really want from relationships?