At its core, HER is a standard romantic film. There are highs, lows, growth, pain and other things commonly commemorated with Hallmark cards. However, the film excels in its terrific execution and intriguing framework; and despite the technological trappings and high concept, HER is filled with humanity.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a depressed man drifting through life and stalling signing his divorce papers. He fills his days writing letters for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com; the outsourced romance-enabler who experiences none himself. When he installs OS1, an advanced operating system that names itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), he soon forms a deep connection with her disembodied, sultry tones.
Between folk outsourcing heartfelt notes to web-based writers and emotionless on-demand phone sex, the near-future world of HER portrays human ‘romantic’ interaction as a cold and sterile affair. Released in an age already featuring such absurdities as Sex With Glass, it’s not without cautionary resonance. Against this backdrop, the notion of a romance with a sentient OS doesn’t seem so absurd.
HER portrays human romantic interaction as a cold and sterile affair. Against this backdrop, the notion of a romance with a sentient OS doesn’t seem so absurd.
The central idea ends up illuminating much more about the human experience than our interaction with technology. By extrapolating things beyond the (current) realm of human comprehension, concepts become intriguingly relevant. How do we relate to those beyond our capability? Why do people outgrow a relationship, and what does that mean? What, exactly, does that relationship constitute anyway?
The film subtly touches upon how human interactions are set to change. When revealing that you’d facebook-stalked your date for the evening, how likely would it be that they would react with “That’s so sweet!”? Scenes of folk waving their hands and talking to themselves seem amusingly daft, until you swiftly realise that’s exactly what many of us do every day.
The mixed LA/Shanghai backdrop offers a stunning yet understated vision of the future that has served humanistic sci-fi well in recent years – ROBOT & FRANK being a key example. Spike Jonze’s environments at once look futuristic but gently familiar.
By extrapolating things beyond the (current) realm of human comprehension, concepts become intriguingly relevant.
HER is far from unique in its ability to tease out human emotion from technological interactions, but the performances continually ring true (including a largely unmentioned role for Amy Adams) and the characters are presented with real delicacy, driving the plot in a way that feels authentic and engaging. The fact that the eventual ‘physical’ coming together of Samantha and Theodore feels so inevitable is a credit to Johansson, Phoenix and the perfectly pitched Arcade Fire soundtrack. This natural tone, and the way the film takes the central absurdity in its stride is deliberately unraveled later, to great emotional effect. Up until this point, the central relationship is somewhat mundane – but that is probably the point. To the majority of objective observers, the relationship between two people actually is rather mundane. Normalcy through monotony.
This perhaps results in the central portion sagging a bit and lacking the emotional and character strength that drives the rest, but when it is so well-realised visually, this slower portion zips past. When the whole package is wrapped up, a dense emotional mélange continues to tease out the pensive moments. Humans’ relationships with themselves, with others, and forces greater than either are all examined with a light touch and a sparkling wit.