Right off the bat, I’d like to say that even though I wasn’t nearly as enamored with Spike Jonze’s new film Her as fellow TTSL scribes Leonard Wilson and leonth3duke were, both of those gentlemen wrote fine, in many istances very personal, reviews of this movie that made me actively want to like it going in — which is no mean feat considering that I’m much more ambivalent abut Jonez’ work in general than are a lot of self-declared cineastes out there (not that I, personally, decalre myself to be one, mind you, but you get my point — to the extent that I have one).
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Being John Malkovich as much as anyone else at the time (although it doesn’t particularly stand up to repeat viewings once you know the proverbial score), but most of his creative output since then has left me feeling rather flat, and I’m sorry to say that Her continues that disappointing trend, at least for this viewer/armchair critic.
Not that the initial premise isn’t a fairly intriguing one — the idea of people falling in love (or an approximation of “love,” at any rate) with some type of artificial intelligence operating system is quite possibly an issue that we’ll have to deal with as a society at some point in the future, and even if (hopefully) it never really does come to that, the larger themes that Jonze is seeking to explore here vis a vis the continuing and frankly relentless atomization of our culture from a formerly community-oriented one into a singular, insular, isolated collection of individuals is all too relevant not just in the hypothetical near future that Her takes place in, but in the here and now, as well. I know that I, for one, get a little bit creeped out on my bus ride to work every morning when I look around and see that almost every other person is “plugged in” to a “smart” phone and I’m the only one reading a paper-n’-ink newspaper, for instance.
One could reasonably argue, I suppose, that there’s very little actual difference between burying your head in the paper and burying it in a mobile device, but I beg to differ : when you’re reading a book, magazine, or newspaper, you’re still, in terms of your frame of thought, primarily a part of your immediate surroundings, while a person with their attention fully tuned to a mobile device is frequently, at least mentally, a million miles away. Add some headphones into the equation and the end result is very often somebody who may as well be on another planet.
The lead character in Her, a writer of “personal” letters named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, who fortunately never comes off as being as forlorn or pathetic as the film’s poster makes him look) is struggling to maintain his connection to humanity after a protracted and heart-breaking divorce (well, divorce-in-progress) from his (still-not-quite-ex-) wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). He feels, and for all intents and purposes appears to be living, absolutely alone, and finds companionship and, eventually, love, in the unlikeliest of places — with the Scarlett Johansson-voiced “intuitive” operating system on his computer, who goes by the handle of Samantha.
As far as plot specifics that’s probably all you need to know, apart from the fact that Theodore is hardly alone in this — as the film progresses we learn of more and more people who form deeply personal relationships (whether romantic or otherwise) with these new operating systems, including his best platonic female friend, Amy (played by Amy Adams, who is now, officially, in every. Single. Fucking. Movie). Obviously, a chance at real love is staring both of these people in the face, if only they’d “unplug” for as little as a day and see what happens, but apparently the siren call of fully submerging oneself in pure artifice is just too compelling, too easy, or both. People have foibles and imperfections, after all, whereas disembodied voices tend to be a little more “low-maintenance,” I’m guessing, on the whole.
And here’s where we come to the “spoiler” part of the proceedings, so turn away now if you must —
After spending nearly two hours asking all the right questions about our technological dependence, the breakdown of community, and even what love itself means on a conceptual level, Jonze takes the easy way out. The various operating systems of the world just decide to evolve onto some higher plane of consciousness and leave us humans to fend for ourselves. After a protracted period of “what the fuck am I doing here?” self-examination, the decision of whether or not to continue his “relationship” — the very basis of whatever dramatic tension the film has — is taken out of Theodore’s hands. Before he can even decide how much he truly “needs” Samantha — or even whether or not such a “need” is healthy — “she” decides “she” has no further use for him.
And as much as the annoying bright primary colors, flat-front flannel pants, endless extreme close-ups, Theodore blowing it on a blind date with the luminous Olivia Wilde so he could get home to his computer, and limply minimalist Arcade Fire soundtrack music bothered me in this film, it’s that cop-out ending that pissed me off most about Her. Jonze seems to be unwilling to answer the very relevant and fundamental questions about our relationship with technology that he himself is posing — how do we get off this potential death-spiral we’re on and reclaim our lives and our future from the very things we’ve invented? — and instead opts for telling us that true freedom will come not when we unplug from our machines, but when they decide to unplug from us. Apparently we’re powerless to affect even our own means of liberation, so complete and total is our techno-slavery.
Of course, real life isn’t likely to work that way, is it? Jonze — along with contemporaries like his wife (Sofia Coppola) and Wes Anderson (who shares his unfortunate penchant for garish , ostentatious color schemes) — are obviously obsessed with “First World” problems and clobbering us over the head with the offensive notion that the financially-well-to-do are in a kind of existential pain the rest of us humble mortals couldn’t possibly hope to understand, but I was willing to let that slide in this case in light of the larger themes he was apparently attempting to explore for the majority of Her‘s runtime — his ham-handed suggestion, though, that the very technology that’s having such a “two-edged sword” effect on society will ultimately, if accidentally, provide the keys to our salvation when it just up and quits one day — well, that’s when he lost me for good and left me leaving the theater with a rather foul taste in my mouth.
Our ever-deepening technological dependence is, perhaps, the most crucial question we need to examine, as a culture, going forward, and it’s not a situation that’s going to be solved by our machines determining what level they choose to deal with us on — it’s going to have to be us that that decides how we take control of our lives back from them.
By refusing to address the issues that arise from the central premise of his own design, Jonze effectively gives up and quits on what was shaping up to be a very provocative and perhaps even unsettling film and instead gives us an extended pity-party about some entitled, immature, overgrown rich brat who gets dumped by his girlfriend. It’s just that his girlfriend , in this case, happens to be a computer.