Movies Without Pity

Her: Ghost in the Machine

by admin December 18, 2013 9:31 am
Her: Ghost in the Machine

At first blush, the "Her" in Spike Jonze's exquisitely crafted sci-fi romance Her would seem to refer to Scarlett Johansson's Samantha, the incorporeal operating system who enters the life of lonely letter writer, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), and becomes his best friend and, eventually, lover. But when you step back and consider it for a moment, the title seems to refer not to the presence, but rather the absence of a "her." After all, when we meet Theodore, he's on the verge of becoming a divorcée, many months removed from a failed marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), the woman he previously assumed he'd be with forever. Though he's been encouraged to get back on the dating scene by good pals like his neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), he seems content in his self-imposed isolation. Except he's not really; as he shuffles through his small universe, which consists primarily of his warmly-lit office and his bachelor pad in a sky-high skyrise, a palpable sense of melancholy trails his every step. There's a hole in his world that he's been thus far unable to fill with another human being. So naturally, it will take a voice in his ear to do it.

The other thing that will occur to you when you regard Her from a distance -- that is, depending on how aware you are of Jonze's fascinatingly odd life and career -- is how deeply, almost nakedly personal the movie really is. For those who may not recall, Jonze was the longtime boyfriend and eventual husband of Sofia Coppola until they divorced in 2003 and by most accounts, the duo had an intense creative alliance, working on each other's movies and sharing the same circle of friends and influences. One can only imagine how difficult disentangling themselves from that kind partnership must have been and Coppola's spirit hovers above the frame, to the point where certain lines of dialogue in Jonze's script -- the first he's ever written solo, by the way -- seem directed specifically at her. (As if that's not enough, Mara shows up for her one big scene with Phoenix sporting a very Coppola-like hairstyle.) Jonze transforms his life into art in other ways as well, whether it's through the appearance of a foul-mouthed video game character who could have stepped right out of a Jackass movie (a franchise that he produces and sometimes appears in) or commenting on his penchant for in emo-heavy soundtracks by having Theodore instruct his all-in-one personal computing device to serenade him with a melancholy song. And, when he doesn't like the tune the device starts blasting, he quickly says, "Play a different melancholy song."

By all rights, Her's heightened level of self-awareness, coupled with its wide-eyed earnestness, should have pushed it into the realm self-parody. But the delicacy with which Jonze juggles the script's maelstrom of emotions -- which range from the joyous flush of first love to the profound despair of saying goodbye -- to say nothing of the remarkably convincing near-future world he's created, pulls it back from the edge every time.(I should stress here that, for all the heartbreak on display, the movie is often uproariously funny.) I really can't say enough about how vividly the filmmaker and his creative team (including production designer K.K. Barrett, art director Austin Gorg and costume designer Casey Storm, all of whom do exceptional work) render this World of Tomorrow. Mixing various SoCal interiors and exteriors with scenes filmed against Shanghai's street life and skyline, Her finally paints a portrait of Los Angeles five, ten or twenty years from now that's not just another dystopic Blade Runner knock-off. This is a future you actually want to live in, one where the populace seems largely happy with all the resources (both natural and artificially created) at their disposal. In fact, in some ways, it more closely resembles the past, right down the '70s fashions and color schemes.

But in the '70s, people didn't have the advantage of relying on little smart devices to run their lives, which is the modern-day trend that Jonze smartly carries through to its logical conclusion. With a single ear bud and slim, pocket-sized phone/search engine/music player, Theodore has immediate access to the entirety of his existence. Why bother reading e-mail when it can be read to you? Want the headlines? Cue up a rundown of the biggest news items. It's late at night and you're feeling lonely? Scan the "men seeking women"/"women seeking men" chat rooms and have a one-on-one virtual encounter with the faceless companion of your choice. Though far more benign than the killer robots that populate The Terminator or The Matrix, the technology present in this future world of Her does have a downside in that it not only enables, but almost encourages the kind of isolation that Theodore has currently embraced.

So it makes perfect sense, then, that the first human connection he makes since his painful break-up is with an inhabitant of this virtual space. Developed by a software company that boasts of having created the first self-aware operating system, Samantha initially demonstrates her importance to Theodore by putting his personal and professional life in order, organizing his cluttered Inbox and proofreading the handwritten (by an artificial hand, naturally) personal letters he dictates into his work computer. It's the eagerness with which she goes about her seemingly menial tasks that first endears her to him, but there's also something about her voice -- that guileless, warm-hearted and, yes, sexy timbre -- that fires up his imagination and then his heart. It's a voice that transports him back to his early, happy years with Catherine before the harsher realities of sharing your life with another person set in. Those past memories mingle with his present longing, eventually bringing him to a place where pursuing a romance with this new, digital her (whose intended function as an operating system, let's not forget, is to service his needs) seems not only right, but necessary.

But Jonze has one more trick up his sleeve that keeps this from becoming the creepily one-sided love story of a master and his disembodied, almost child-like servant. Because she's self-aware, Samantha has the ability to learn about the world and uses her relationship with Theodore as a means to do just that. Again, when you reflect on Her from a distance, it becomes much less the story of a lonely man who finds love and more the tale of a young woman coming into her own as an individual. That's reflected in the performances as well; Phoenix is quite good in a role that's unlike anything we've seen him do before, but I'd argue that Johansson is the true star of this movie and turns in career-best work. Relying solely on her voice (and without even the benefit of an animated avatar), she creates a complete character who grows and changes through a compelling narrative arc. There's universality to Samantha's experience that ultimately cuts Her loose from its sci-fi trappings and renders it a simple, human story about the foundational relationships that shape and define who we are as individuals. And in that context -- to circle back to that simple, elegant title one more time -- Her doesn't refer to a person who has been lost, but a person who has been created.

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