Modern society is in love with screens. It’s not a one-way affair, because screens normally connect us to someone or something on the other side. In Her, Spike Jonze (Where The Wild Things Are) asks what would happen if an operating system was something that could fall right back in love with you.
It’s the near future, and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, The Master) is still lonely a year after his wife (Rooney Mara, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) left him. When the first artificially intelligent OS becomes available, he buys one and it names itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, Hitchcock). At first they’re just good friends, but slowly they find themselves falling in love with each other, and Theodore has to consider the implications of falling in love with someone who is real, but not corporeal.
Theodore’s very existence is twee: he works for a company called “beautiful handwritten letters dot com”, where he dictates heartfelt letters for people to send to their loved ones. This business model does not seem viable, even in the strangely warm but sterile future. Beyond that, Phoenix wears a silly little moustache and a hangdog expression all through the film; these combine to render the character more creepy than anything else, despite the deep reserve of empathy that anchors his performance.
Yet Theodore is not the problem with Her. Most of it comes down to Samantha and what you make of the idea of artificially intelligent operating systems. Writer/director Jonze presents them all rather too matter-of-factly; it’s almost halfway through the movie before anyone else acknowledges that OSes are now a thing, and that anyone other than Theodore has developed a meaningful relationship with one. The focus on Theodore is so tight that it’s impossible to get a feel for how the system is actually impacting person to person and person to machine relations.
To compound this, Johansson is a poor fit for Samantha. Her voice is warm, but cracked, and it is instantly recognisable. Theodore can’t imagine a body for her, but anyone with a passing knowledge of the last fifteen years of cinema likely can. Johansson sells Samantha’s vulnerability well enough, but when it comes to the journey of self-discovery and discussion of the community of AIs, there’s nothing there but abstraction.
Samantha’s voice is featured in the movie as a voice over, rather than diegetically. This allows for clarity of sound but, given that we never hear her voice in Theodore’s ear, it’s just another remove between the idea and the audience.
Her doesn’t say enough, but what it does have to say it says for too long. Jonze has created a compelling vision of the future but has not given it the flesh that it deserves. Whether a better movie existed in his original 150 minute cut or Steven Soderbergh‘s 90 minute version will perhaps never be known, but Her leaves the impression of a potentially great movie that gestated too long and came out only partly formed.
Her opened in Australian cinemas on January 16th.
Directed by: Spike Jonze.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams.