Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: Her

Rates:  *  *  *  *

In the near future, humans and computers have developed a near symbiotic relationship.

Future people have their home system, their laptop and their portable i-Style devices same as us, but these different elements have been woven into one amorphous whole, in a way that is still out of our reach. One operating system runs everything in your personal network, and all of the electronic gadgets that you use during the day, including your work station, are overseen by this disembodied electronic PA.

Future people are effectively connected to this network 24 hours a day, and nearly everything they do links to it in some fashion.

Future people also have a predilection for bright shirts and dorkily high, beltless pants.

This is the background presented to us in the new Spike Jonze film her, a nearly un-categorisable movie that blends romance, comedy, drama and sci-fi elements.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a likable sad sack knocked about by a recent divorce. While most of the components of his life seem in place - nice apartment in a modern filing cabinet, steady job writing personal letters on behalf of clients, wardrobe of pastel shirts and tweed slacks - Theodore is a reserved, insular man and very lonely.

But when he purchases the latest version of an operating system for his personal network, he gets more than he bargained for. His new OS comes with an artificial personality; a programmed but infinitely adaptable system that learns from everything it experiences and develops its character in consequence, much as humans do (and evil computers do in other films, shortly before they decide to destroy humanity).

Dubbing itself Samantha, the OS and Theodore quickly move beyond checking emails and scheduling appointments and begin to develop a genuine friendship. They talk constantly and explore the city together (Theodore wears an ear piece and carries a small digital camera, so Samantha can see and hear) and the effect they have on one another is pronounced. Theodore's sense of fun and optimism returns, after a glum hiatus, while Samantha develops and matures exponentially.

Even though one member of the duo is a disembodied computer program, their relationship makes perfect, logical sense.

That the two characters then fall in love shows the kind of risks Jonze is willing to take, and what makes him such an exciting film maker. In terms of mis-matched, odd couple lovers this would have to rank at the pointy end of any analysis of this plot device from film history.

Theodore and Samantha go on dates, coo at each other and even (inventively) have sex. They sometimes argue and annoy each other, but they also talk, work things out, find a way to overcome the things that come between them. And so, they are like every other couple that has lasted more than 5 minutes in each other's company, in movies and in the real world.

Despite the unusual nature of the relationship, their ups and downs feel very real and carry emotional weight. As a viewer, you wish them well, hope they make it, but can't shake the feeling that something will go amiss. That the rules of movie narrative, and life, almost demand that things will not end as happily as everyone hopes they will.

There's a wonderful, though melancholy, sequence early in the film where Theodore tells Samantha about the end of his marriage. How he and his wife grew together and changed and explored and that this was exciting... and that it was these same factors that also ended up pushing them apart. That they changed too much and no longer fit together. Without giving away too much of the plot, this serves as a marker of how the story plays out, and the bittersweet tone behind the events on screen.

Writing, as well as directing, for the first time, Spike Jonze has created perhaps his most complete movie to date. The manic energy of his first two - brilliant - films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) has dissipated, replaced by a mature, reflective tone. While this was also present in his last film, Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze has created a much more fully developed narrative this time round.

The world that his characters inhabit in her is vividly realised (praise is deserved here for the production design team) and, while ravishing to look at, is entirely convincing. Similarly, his characters are written in a subtle, sophisticated way, that allows them space to move and breathe, to be unpredictable in the way real people are.

He is greatly aided in this by some fine acting, particularly Joaquin Phoenix in a change of pace role. Centre stage for nearly the whole film, Phoenix maintains just the right tone from start to finish and shatters the perception that he is only suited to playing angry weirdos. He is well backed by Amy Adams, who shines in a smallish part as Theodore's best friend and neighbour.

The other main player, the operating system, is voiced by Scarlett Johannson, who gives a slightly one-note performance (interestingly she replaced original cast member Samantha Morton, when Jonze was unsatisfied with this aspect of the shoot. Morton remains credited as an associate producer). There are also times when the story wanders a little, and the running time (more than two hours) is probably a little longer than is necessary.

But these are minor quibbles.

Funny, well observed and moving,  her  transcends the novelty items in the plot and emerges as an affecting look at the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. It makes its points about how humanity's interaction with technology is evolving early, and then switches gears to show us how, even in an altered future, the things that we will have to deal with are much the same as they are now. And much the same as they always have been. The more things change, the more they remain, fundamentally, the same.

A bold, intelligent movie, as fearless as its principle characters prove to be. 

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