Away From ‘Her’: The Ultimate Long-Distance Relationship

her-joaquin-phoenix-computer Her is a rather unusual film, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s seen Spike Jonze’s other movies (or his music videos). He’s collaborated with Charlie Kaufman a couple of times, first on the brilliantly bizarre Being John Malkovich, which put them both on the cinematic map. Jonze’s adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are was one of the more oddly original movies of 2009 (or, honestly, any year) — a children’s movie that wasn’t really made for children. It was a melancholy rumination on youthful fantasies made for the inner children of adults, and therefore wasn’t terribly successful at the box office. Jonze i’s the rare artist who’s been allowed to make films that are anything but safe and conventional. It’s almost guaranteed that people who only like “normal” movies won’t enjoy them, because he willfully defies audience expectations.

These films tend to break the rules set by mainstream Hollywood fare. They are not like other movies you’ve seen before — they don’t follow those predictable beats and tropes. On paper, most of Jonze’s films seem easily classifiable — Adaptation is a comedy, Where The Wild Things Are is a fantasy for families, Being John Malkovich is a comedic fantasy for adults, and Her is a love story. But they’re not really. There’s an undercurrent of sadness in all of Jonze’s work; his characters tend to be quite lonely. Her follows suit, and in many ways seems like his most defining work to date — it has a vision, and executes it flawlessly. (It is also his first attempt at authoring a screenplay on his own.)

Does that make it a great movie? I’m still wrestling with it, so at least Her has managed to be thought-provoking. Because Jonze’s work tends to stray from the beaten path, it may take some time, or even multiple viewings, to settle on a reaction. Certainly a degree of contemplation is involved — so let’s dive in.

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Her follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a heartbroken letter-writer still mooning over his soon-to-be-ex-wife at an undetermined point in the future. (Twenty years? Thirty years?) There are no flying cars or jet packs in this vision of what’s to come, but Los Angeles is noticeably bigger, in terms of both architecture and population (Manhattan Beach is very crowded), and artificial intelligence is no longer just a possibility, but a reality. The story begins as Theodore, and the rest of the world, encounter this brave new world for the first time — basically, the moment our smart phones become really smart. Like, even smarter than we are.

It’s immediately obvious that Her doesn’t take place in 2013, yet there’s something very recognizable about this world. For one, it looks like the production designer was Steve Jobs — everything is sleek and pristine, with the uber-efficient but impersonal sheen of an Apple product. The sets pop with bright, eye-catching colors and the extras are hustling and bustling, yet this future Los Angeles still feels rather lifeless and depressing. Everywhere Theodore goes, we see people talking to themselves — or, rather, to their phones (though they don’t seem to be called “phones” anymore — which is fitting, since people rarely use them to actually talk to each other). It’s unsettling, probably because it’s also a little familiar — because we already see people walking down the street talking to “themselves,” and you can stop into any coffee shop and see every customer fully immersed in their technology.

HERIs this where we’d headed? Jonze makes a pretty convincing argument, with one foot in the future and one planted firmly in the present. We learn so much about the day-to-day in this futuristic life, but almost nothing about what is actually happening; we don’t get so much as a glimpse outside Los Angeles. It’s a bold choice, but also a restrictive one, in that we’re seeing a new place but only through the eyes of one very ordinary guy with a very limited perspective. We want to know more. And see more. Most futuristic films depict catastrophic events and vastly different technologies, allowing us to see such films as mere fantasies; this one is so familiar, and it’s all the more off-putting. (At least the costume design suggests that everyone still shops at Urban Outfitters, so that’s comforting.)

Theodore upgrades his monotone, male Siri-like “assistant” for Samantha (a name she chooses herself), the world’s first artificial intelligence. (Users can choose the gender of their assistant, but it’s unclear whether or not all the female voices sound as smoky and sultry as Scarlett Johansson.) She is not a robot — she’s warm, friendly, and even a little funny, and she does not exist merely to serve him. She has desires of her own, which grow more complex as the film unfolds. Samantha can anticipate Theodore’s wants and needs (as our current technology can, to an extent). She is always available to talk to or play with him. She is pretty low-maintenance, as girlfriends go. And Theodore finds himself falling for her, which seems rather reasonable under the circumstances. her-joaquin-phoenix-olivia-wilde

This is a world in which people interact with their technology more than they do with each other; he hears Samantha’s voice more than any others. Theodore’s job is to compose heartfelt letters from loved ones to each other. (An odd job that I don’t find quite plausible, even in this emotionally detached society.) Everyone feels hermetically sealed off from one another, and it’s not like Theodore didn’t make a go of real, flesh-and-blood romance — with his ex-wife, and on a blind first date with a tigress (Olivia Wilde) that goes from awesome to awkward in the blink of an eye (as first dates so often do). Has our connection with technology made it more difficult to feel connections with each other? When we have a device to inform, entertain, and anticipate our whims at every moment, isn’t it harder to find a person who can fulfill a similar role? Smart phones have made our lives so easy and breezy that suddenly, the needs and neuroses of another human become awfully inconvenient in comparison. So when Samantha enters the picture — well, who wouldn’t fall for her?

Her limits us to Theodore’s point of view, so we get very little insight into how the rest of the world is reacting to artificial intelligence. We never learn who created Samantha, nor what lead to her creation. Presumably, there are a lot of moral debates circling around the media. Surely the news is filled with articles weighing the pros and cons of these “assistants,” and the rapid ways society is changing because of them — particularly as they grow more intelligent with every passing day. We see only Theodore’s reaction, along with a handful of people close to him. There’s his college friend Amy (Amy Adams), who develops a friendship with an artificial intelligence of her own. There’s his co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt), who doesn’t bat an eye when he learns that Theodore’s new “girlfriend” is all voice, no body. And there’s Theodore’s ex Catherine (Rooney Mara), the sole individual who reacts negatively to Samantha’s role in his life — suggesting that not every human in this future world has totally given themselves up to the machines.her-rooney-mara-joaquin-phoenix

It’s easy to imagine all kinds of problems emerging between Theodore and Samantha, but the film doesn’t travel down such a predictable route. (It might have unfolded like last year’s Ruby Sparks, about a novelist who conjures up his manic pixie dream girl in a book, only to encounter her in the flesh — with the knowledge that he can manipulate her based on what he writes.) Theodore and Samantha’s romance follows a more traditional path than you’d think — it’s kind of sweet and normal, at least until its inevitable end. Samantha is an intelligence, capable of many things a human is not, so it is not Theodore who ends up being superior to Samantha because he is “real” and in physical form; it is Samantha who has seemingly infinite capabilities, who is constantly improving, who is not limited by a human body or mortality. She does truly feel, but eventually loses the ability to even relate her experiences to Theodore because she’s so quickly surpassed him. A human life must look awfully small to an endlessly intelligent being capable of reading a book in under a second and engaging in thousands of conversations at the same time.

Her is essentially a love story, but it’s a chilling one. It raises all sorts of questions about technology and humanity, and how the two are merging, and what the effects will be. Nothing that happens in the movie is terribly alarming, but it left me deeply unsettled just the same. If this is the future, it’s a pretty bleak one — and it’s only slightly different than the present we’re living in now. It’s a movie that forces us to stop and think about the bond we’re forming with our gadgets — a relationship that hasn’t yet crossed into full-blown love, but has certainly become a dependency. It’s not hard to imagine the future incarnations of our smart phones being artificially intelligent, and it’s not difficult to believe that they’d quickly become smarter than we are. Samantha is capable of composing music; she feels a range of emotions, and she’s not just faking it. If an artificial intelligence can do all this, what good are humans? We’d be the first species to single-handedly create our own replacements, rendering ourselves obsolete — maybe even extinct.her-joaquin-phoenix-city

Her fits right in with the rest of Jones’ oeuvre, but it also stands apart somehow. Watching it is a cold and somewhat alienating experience, probably intentionally so. It’s a very quiet film, often unfolding in long takes; in a good many scenes we’re watching just one person on screen. And though are many people walking around in the background, somehow just about everyone in it seems terribly lonely. There are moments in which the characters on screen experience joy, yet the movie itself is rather joyless, because it’s disturbing to watch a man fall in love with a disembodied voice.  I wasn’t sure that this wouldn’t all end with some apocalyptic, Terminator-like finish, but it’s more ambiguous than that. I’m not sure the last few minutes gave me quite enough to chew on, especially in comparison to the rest of the film. There are many, many places this story could have gone, and I might have liked to see at least a few of them.

Despite the heady subject matter and heavy tone, Her is also pretty funny, with comedy coming from unexpected sources. (Jonze himself voices a foul-mouthed video game character.) Joaquin Phoenix does a remarkable job portraying a man in love, particularly the youthful exuberance of his first flush of feelings for Samantha. (The transformation is all the more amazing since he tends to come off as a sour jerk in real life.) And in her all-voice performance, Scarlett Johansson conveys a variety of complicated emotions and does indeed have some sex appeal — but maybe that’s partly because we’re still picturing Scarlett Johansson. (Originally, Samantha was voiced by Samantha Morton, who was recast after the film was shot.) There are several moments of warmth throughout the film, yet I could never shake off the shiver I got from the overall premise. Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t help viewing Her through doom-colored glasses.

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It’s perhaps ironic that Her is a film so confounding, I wasn’t even sure I liked it; I had similar reservations about a certain Stanley Kubrick film, and Her is kind of like 2001: A Space Odyssey redone as a love story. It’s not nearly so slippery to grasp on a story level, but the questions it raises are every bit as existential, and every bit as unsettling, should you choose to probe them.

Jonze doesn’t exactly judge Theodore’s relationship, and is maybe even saying, Hey, it’s okay to love your machine! Because what’s the difference, really? Love is a projection; it’s what we feel about another being based on assumptions that we hope are true. We hope they’re being faithful, and truthful, and that they love us back as much as they say they do. But can we ever really know? Maybe human beings are evolving out of love with each other; maybe we’re better off left to our own devices.

I’ve had a difficult time classifying my reaction to Her. Ultimately, that’s probably a good thing. What is clear, however, is that Spike Jonze set out to make a very specific movie, and he executed it very precisely. It’s a movie very much of our times, one to watch alongside The Social Network — a movie that will probably reveal even more about itself, and about us, as time goes on.

Maybe in a near future not so different from this one, I will be able to tell you exactly how I feel about Her. But we’re not there yet.

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