Review: Her (2013)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #764

Number of Views: One
Release Date: December 18, 2013
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Love Story
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $23,000,000
Box Office: $48,800,000
Running Time: 126 minutes
Director: Spike Jonze
Producers: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay
Screenplay: Spike Jonze
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Score: Arcade Fire
Editing: Eric Zumbrunnen, Jeff Buchanan
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher, Luka Jones, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Portia Doubleday, Brian Cox, Spike Jonze

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] The Arcade Fire “Night Talking”

[2] The Arcade Fire “Sleepwalker”

[3] The Arcade Fire “Milk & Honey”

[4] The Arcade Fire “Photograph”

[5] Karen O “The Moon Song”

Of all the mysteries of the universe, none are quite as dumbfounding as love. Some of us go our whole lives without ever fully understanding its meaning, while a select few are fortunate enough to find it, and fewer still, able to hang onto it. Knowing where and how it starts is the easy part – the release of central dopamine, a racing heart, butterflies in the tummy – all are telltale signs that love is in the air and there’s no more all-encompassing joy than the one generated by mutual affection at its offset. However, it’s seldom standing still, constantly evolving, and requires both parties to go with its flow if there’s any hope it will continue to flourish. The fact that selection is often such a dishonest pursuit doesn’t help as we tend to tailor ourselves to what we think the other person would go for and often find ourselves compromising our own beliefs and interests, in favor of celebrating theirs. This is all well and good in the “honeymoon period” as the chemicals in our bodies and minds can be rather persuasive when pooled together. But eventually reality checks in and, depending how the emotional trade-off has played out, it can provide a truly terrifying wake-up call.

Traditionally we don’t struggle greatly with the falling in love part as logic need not figure into the equation. We simply follow our hearts and trust that they’ll see us good in the long run. It’s the falling out of love process that causes distress, never more so than when the decision to cool things off has been taken out of our hands. Should we have reached a point of true mutual contentment during the interim, then it can feel like literally being torn in half once the final stone has been cast. Suddenly, we are all at sea, as it becomes a mad dash back to finding the person we were before we entered into this tryst and that’s easier said than done when we barely recognize ourselves anymore. The mind, once a dutiful accomplice, begins to play tricks on us and has full access to any snapshots or soundbytes it knows can provoke a response. Frustration then comes into play as we find ourselves searching frantically for answers and without a spotter on-hand to assist with calculations. How can two people be so close, yet wind up so utterly distant? What happened to being the centre of this person’s universe? What’s wrong with me? Should I fix it, then is there still hope? Nobody knows how to torment us like we do ourselves and I know such as I’ve asked every last one of these posers.

It’s inevitable that we’ll reach a point during our relationships when comfort and familiarity override initial infatuation and this is where things begin to get decidedly tricky. You see, we’re on this Earth to live and learn, to grow and progress, and that’s not exclusive to just us. Some couples are fortunate enough to grow together; whereas others seem destined to grow apart. In cases of the latter, little habits that you once found endearing become increasingly maddening. We conveniently forget the good times and, instead, hone in on reasons not to be cheerful. Depending how far we have deviated from the person we started out as, bitterness can creep in as we begin to feel ensnared and cheated by our increasingly insignificant others. Sooner or later, in certain cases much later, the bough simply has to break and months, years or even decades of our lives together can feel wasted. Most critically in all this confusion, our identities suddenly become less clear and that’s a terrible thing to misplace.

Speaking of which, let’s head over to Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future, where love letter ghost writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) plies his trade. Like a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac, Theodore has a canny knack for expressing true and unconditional love through poetic verse, the only problem with which being that none of the sentiment shown is his own. You see, romantic projections aside, he is deeply unsatisfied and nursing a breaking heart of his own.

With divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara) looming ever larger; he is struggling to come to terms with the prospect of life without his estranged soul mate. Theodore’s mind, which once endorsed this association, is now predisposed with playing tricks on him at every turn, reminding him of precisely what he has lost and presenting only snippets of happier times to cling to, while coercing him deeper into his own personal abyss.

It’s not that Theodore doesn’t have friends, like sympathetic old college pal Amy (Amy Adams) and her mildly overbearing husband, Charles (Matt Letscher), more that they can’t always be on-hand shake him out of his funk and ultimately he is left alone with his thoughts once more. Through readjusting to life post-Catherine, Theodore has learned to become self-sufficient. Indeed, his introverted nature supports this lifestyle choice. But a sensitive soul like his isn’t intended to fly solo and what he secretly craves more than anything else is to share his existence with another.

Perhaps playing video games until his eyes cross over is the answer? Gaming has moved on considerably since the days of joysticks and heath bars, and thanks to the wonders of motion sensor technology, Theodore can navigate all manner of hostile environments using nothing more than simple hand movements. They even thought to throw in a cute little avatar to act as his own personal tour guide. Isn’t the little fella adorable? I wonder what kind of kitten-cute fluff the alien child has to say.

“Fuck you, shit-head, fuck-face, get the fuck out of my face!”

Not working out for you, huh Theodore? Well, there’s always comfort spending I guess. I mean, if you can’t locate that smile by yourself, you can always purchase one thanks to the marvellous healing properties of good old-fashioned retail therapy. Granted, he’ll likely be somber again once the initial thrill of the chase subsides, but right now Theodore would welcome such brief distraction. The advanced OS1 operating system appears a rather shrewd impulse buy and he is quick to boot up this new-fangled piece of tech the very moment he gets it home.

First things first Theodore, there are a couple of questions to be answered in order to determine personal preference and provide any necessary adjustments to your software, prior to introductions. The much-touted OS1 model boasts cognizant artificial intelligence and is programmed to adapt and evolve, dependent on interactions with user. Within seconds he lights up, as Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) selects her own name because she likes the way it sounds and offers alarmingly human responses to his every instruction.

Naturally Samantha is aware of her basic requirements and fulfills these by effectively organizing Theodore’s entire life, as per her programming. But in addition to menial tasks like sifting through his daily emails and notifying him of any paramount details via an earpiece and mini-camera that he keeps on his person at all times, she is also naturally intuitive. Indeed, it isn’t long before Samantha begins to recognize her own role in this transaction and becomes increasingly aware of basic needs and desires of her own.

So she’s going rogue then? Not when you think about it. You see, Samantha is simply adjusting to her surroundings in much the same way as a wide-eyed child would, albeit one who could memorize War & Peace from cover to cover in a fraction of the time it takes an ostrich to blink. Her primary concern is still her keeper and she is hard-wired to cater to his every whim as per her original mandate. But she is evidently not present just to make up numbers and, with Theodore, isn’t expected to either. To a man with a long history of hiding his true self away from his partners, the fact that such is never required with Samantha makes her essentially the perfect woman.

Before committing to anything serious, any hopeless romantic would be advised to weigh up the pros and cons and Theodore is already two steps ahead here. Moreover, early signs are immensely encouraging. On the upside, Samantha is easygoing, supportive and nurturing, always willing to give her full and undivided attention while requiring nothing in return, and he will never be required to second-guess how she’s feeling as she’s not human enough to know how to conceal it.

Now for those epic fails. On the sole downside, she doesn’t possess a physical body. Admittedly, this presents something of a stumbling block with our lovebirds looking to take their relationship to the next level like any other new couple in love. But with so many other boxes ticked, it need not be a game-breaker and, despite a dash of understandable initial hesitancy, Theodore isn’t prepared to regard it as one. I’d say it’s high time they make this shit official, wouldn’t you?

Theodore agrees and how’s this for official? We’re talking openly admitting that he is dating an OS to his colleagues and friends, public displays of affection, and romantic strolls along Venice Beach. Samantha may not ever know how the sand feels between her toes; but he is only too happy to explain the sensation. Using the mini-camera for visual reconnaissance, she is now able to see the world through his eyes and the pair appear genuinely happy. However, the whole physical intimacy deal is still a bone of contention and when Samantha suggests a sex surrogate to help replicate the act, he’s understandably skeptical.

It’s not that Isabella (Portia Doubleday) isn’t willing to lend her entire physical being to a cause she believes in; more that Theodore isn’t comfortable with the dynamic and, for once, Samantha’s suggestion is both misguided and thoughtless. It’s also human and herein lies the problem. You see, for all her artificial intelligence, it’s her ability to adapt and evolve that’s causing friction here.

The bottom line is that Samantha was created purely to serve her user and that means meeting on their terms. Human terms. As a result of her sophisticated technology, she’s beginning to display the customary human traits and one of those is a necessity to consider herself before the other person in the relationship. Potential red flag there Theodore.

It’s clearly not a good time as the divorce papers have been finalized and the only thing left to do now is let go of the past once-and-for-all. That’s easier said than done when Catherine is at precisely the same point of no return and evidently struggling too. All of those snapshots and soundbytes of happier times are rushing at once, almost as though aware their only purpose from hereon in will be to fade as memories do.

At its heart, Her is essentially a tale about the human capacity to not only grow and change, but also accept and deal. As one door closes, another opens, and while this allows us to experience new things, it also invariably leaves us exposed to the very real possibility of long-term anguish. On the flip side, it also explores both our relationship with technology and the manner in which technology is altering our relationships. A decade back, the concept of romantic love blossoming between man and A.I. would have been too whimsical for many to entertain, but nowadays it’s starting to feel like the next logical progression. That said, for all the future savvy on exhibit, it’s the relationship between Theodore and Samantha that is most grounded in reality ironically.

Phoenix’s performance is beautifully understated and I swear, should you study his eyes closely, then you’ll see the reflection of angels dancing in Theodore’s soul when joy is preferred to pain. Once the clouds roll in around him, he cuts a desperately lonely figure, so much so that our only desire is to shield him from harm and keep him safe. It’s to the actor’s infinite credit that we find ourselves growing and changing alongside him, committed to his cause unerringly wherever that may lead despite his human flaws, and indeed, because of them.

However, for as much as his turn is quite brilliant, it’s actually Johansson who is most persuasive here. The part of Samantha was originally played by Samantha Morton and it wasn’t until post-production that the dynamic changed and Johansson was brought in to replace her. The fact that she never shared a screen with her co-star, let alone a set, makes her achievement even more extraordinary as you’d never know it from her responses. If accepting that a man could fall in love with his operating system seems like a stretch, then it really isn’t as every last interaction feels unforced and genuine. I’ve long since been a great admirer of Johansson’s work but bizarrely this may well be my favorite all-time performance of hers and that’s also due in no small part, to a simply edible screenplay.

Spike Jonze has been on my radar ever since Being John Malkovich and Adaptation but, as delightful as both films were, he was effectively painting the prose of literary genius Charlie Kaufman onto screen. Despite working tirelessly in the industry for well over twenty years, this is only his fourth feature film, and most critically, the very first he has penned himself. Ultimately Her works on twin levels, both as an intellectual study of humanity’s ever-growing fascination with technology, and also as a simple and deeply affecting love story.

Whether you’re one of life’s eternal optimists or deeply cynical about the notion of soul mates matters not as you can either invest in the connections forged or zero in on the disconnect side of things, dependent on personal preference. Being a shameless romantic at heart, no prizes for guessing my vantage. Call me a love fool but I always did like the way sand feels between your toes.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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