Friday 17 January 2014

Movie Review: Her (2013)

A dazzling commentary on the ever more complex human dependence on computers, Her projects into the near future and finds the emotional lines between people and machines blurring into new realities.

In Los Angeles, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a creative writer of love letters on behalf of customers who can't be bothered to express their own feelings, is ironically introverted, lonely, and suffering through the final stages of a painful divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara), his lifelong sweetheart. Theodore's neighbour and aspiring documentary film-maker Amy (Amy Adams) is one of the few people he is comfortable talking to. When he installs a new, interactive and intuitive computer operating system who calls herself Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), she becomes his constant companion, organizing his life, responding to his emotions, and helping him talk through his issues.

After Theodore's evening with a blind date (Olivia Wilde) goes sideways, Samantha starts to gain self-awareness and human-like passion, and the relationship between her and Theodore evolves into love. Amy also goes through a relationship break-up, and befriends her new operating system. As Theodore works through finalizing his divorce, complications in the relationship between man and operating system introduce a new layer of unexpected challenges.

Her is a subtle but brilliant extrapolation of the human-machine interface. Director and writer Spike Jonze takes a Siri-like presence and infuses her with the next level of emotional intelligence, able to read and interpret emotions, and react to them with empathy. Samantha becomes a companion, then a friend, then a lover, engaging in spectacular VOIP sex that Jonze turns into a masterpiece of visual simplicity to emphasize the rich vocal connection.

Samantha's self awareness creates a presence that allows Theodore to invest genuine emotions into a machine, Jonze tracing the human affinity for attachment to its logical next evolutionary step. Her opens up the question of what is love's true nature, and explores the potential for love to thrive in the absence of physical presence, although Samantha does not stop trying to find innovative ways to manifest herself as a physical, human presence in Theodore's life.

The film moves towards a reawakening hidden inside a relationship breakdown, Samantha proving to be much more astute than even Theodore could imagine. The operating system's mandate is to help, and Samantha not only uncovers Theodore's need to feel again but provides his emotional rescue, reigniting his passion for life.

Joaquin Phoenix is the singular visual focus of the film, most scenes consisting of Theodore conversing with Samantha, many in close-up with minimal movement. Phoenix conveys the sadness of a life at an ebb, stiff in his motions, uncomfortable in his skin, desperately pining for Catherine, his better half and lifelong companion. Jonze makes the most of Phoenix's craggy face, embellished with a robust moustache. Scarlett Johansson provides a voice to get lost in, her performance a rare example of an actress leaving a lasting impression without her character ever appearing on the screen. Amy Adams gets a small but crucial role, providing the parallel clues that other operating systems are busy helping their owners recover from loss in a variety of intricate ways.

With the quirkiness of the near future replacing Japan's cultural uniqueness Her achieves the tender, wistful feel of Lost In Translation, Johansson again playing one part of the essential, soul-saving relationship that can never be. Unconventional and thought-provoking, Her is a love story with byte.

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