19 February 2014

HER- Review

Hold onto your hats, this could get analytical. Spike Jonze's new film, Her presents a highly unconventional romance through a digital, philosophical and existential prism, and it arrived in the UK right in time for Valentine's Day. To both update and paraphrase Voltaire, the thesis seems to be that if Scarlett Johansson did not exist as your girlfriend, she would have to be invented.

In the near-future, Theodore Twombly (what a name!) makes a living by composing the futuristic equivalent of greetings cards, for a company called BeautifullyHandwrittenLetters.com, a oxymoron-ic name that sets the tone nicely. In the process of a messy divorce from his wife, Theodore invests in a new operating system (OS) for his computer, which creates a personalised Siri-like artificial intelligence who christens herself Samantha. But as Theodore and Samantha get to know each other, a more unexpected connection develops between them.

Right, theory time. In 2001, Marc Prensky wrote a thesis (neatly summarised here) about digital wisdom, positing that younger users of technology, dubbed "digital natives", could better understand and interact with digital media and technology because they had grown up with it. In contrast, their teachers and parents had adapted their knowledge of technology into their established working and teaching practices, becoming "digital immigrants." Over a decade later, digital natives are now the Western world's leading consumer demographic, as evidenced by the popularity of smartphones and tablet computers, and their numerous practical uses.

It almost feels clinical to start talking about a romantic film in theoretical terms, but then that's the kicker in Jonze's film. It's about a deeply odd relationship, but it depicts it in such a non-judgemental and absorbing fashion that you actually feel taken out of it whenever you, and Theodore, are reminded of how unorthodox it is. Jonze's futuristic world seems to be entirely populated with digital natives, most of whom are open-minded and even happy about Theodore's burgeoning attraction to his computer's OS. Equally, it's interesting to see how some older reviewers (digital immigrants) have measured the film against previous works like Blade Runner, rather than measuring against current native trends.

The modern equivalent would be falling for Siri, but then Siri doesn't have the personality, wit or even the voice of Scarlett Johansson's character. You can see (or rather, hear) why she was tipped for an unprecedented Oscar nod for her purely vocal performance- she brings real personality to that voice, but I'd feel a little more comfortable saying it's not just about having a sexy voice if she hadn't been cast to replace Samantha Morton during production.

On the receiving end, Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore is a sweet, romantic milquetoast of a man. It's telling that when Samantha's personality is first being generated, he's asked about his relationship with his mother. He doesn't even finish stammering through his answer before he's given a supportive voice that essentially lives in his ear. Phoenix's performance is just on the right side of needy and co-dependent, effortlessly building a character whose emotional fragility only really bubbles up as a major personal flaw once you have the full picture.

Jonze realises his story environment beautifully, both in script terms and in the way he's directed the film. If you've ever had that feeling where you've left your phone at home, and it feels like you've lost an arm, this film dramatises that panicked attachment to devices better than any I've seen, but never loses sight of the personal connection. As in the best sci-fi, it feels grounded, and sometimes reminiscent of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror in its "what if"-ness. On top of that, this film has the most gorgeous and integrated production design I've ever seen- everything from the retro 1920s fashion to the software interfaces feels not only believable, but lived-in.

At this point, special mention should go to Amy Adams, because it's difficult to find another place to talk about her character, in a review that started with digital natives and digital immigrants. Adams is always brilliant, but as an analogue best mate to Theodore, she gives a beautifully expressive performance, seeming utterly besotted with him in every interaction, but playing it subtly enough to where it's believable that he hasn't noticed, or more importantly, that she hasn't ever told him. After a while, you start to see where it's going with her character, insofar as that she's even more similar to Theodore than she initially realised.

Her is a little baggy in the middle, and its two hour running time leaves it somewhat prone to repetition in that second act, but it's also a bittersweet, engrossing and impeccably acted love story. Even when we are startled into consciousness of how the central relationship may only seem personal to Theodore, the script strives for intimacy in a world that is only interested in either a sense of digital community or in shallow, physical attraction, and it effectively plays as a simultaneously exaggerated and recognisable version of where we are right now. In the most unassuming way, this is essential sci-fi allegory for consumer electronics in the 21st century, and it's pretty lovely to boot.

Her is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen Her, why not share your comments below? Sorry for the media theory- I promise that we can talk about the foul-mouthed little video game character next time I bring this movie up.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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