Movie Review: Her- Spike Jonze’s Prophetic Reflection on Social Isolation and the Dependency on Evolving Technologies is as Sweet as it is Disconcerting

her2At the heart of every truly great science-fiction film there is an emphasis on character that aims to reflect on some element of the human condition usually intended to open our minds to thought provoking predictions or eerily warn of an impending reality. We’ve seen numerous examples of these contemplative films throughout the very existence of cinema stemming all the way back to Fritz Lang’s haunting futuristic piece Metropolis and has inspired countless others in its thoughtful wake as seen in memorable cinematic creations such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and even Duncan Jones’ Moon. Never to be a director to back away from experimental presentation or psychological study, Spike Jonze’s Her fully embraces this reflective science-fiction quality by peering into the deep sociable aspects of the human psyche giving us more of a prophetical reality than a fictional reflection. In his latest film Jonze creates a disconcerting yet equally endearing romance between a secluded depressive and his female operating system with an evolving consciousness, basically a HAL-9000 homage from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, that brings to light a commentary on our dependency of programmed living and our need to maintain sociability when direct communication avenues have been stricken from life’s normality. Rarely do ambitious films meet idyllically with their inquisitive potential, but Jonze has fashioned a delicately profound science-fiction contemplation that is depicted through the thoughtfulness of character alone that brims with wry humor, authentic pain, and charming revelation. Through the use of beautiful cinematography, impeccable production design, and subtle yet evocative performances, Her becomes a multilayered film experience where its character study of an isolated man afraid to become vulnerable again blends harmoniously with a truly unconventional yet naturally heartfelt romance. Jonze’s affinity and ambition for presenting psychological challenges, as he has done before with Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and especially in Where the Wild Things Are, finally collides with emotionally piercing conveyance within Her making it as thought provoking and as it is undeniably sweet. If the sole purpose of the science-fiction genre is to expound on societal, moral, and deeply psychological aspects of our human condition than Her fits soundly within that genre’s capabilities by capturing our condition’s essential need for sociability and love uncomfortably linking it with our antisocial dependency on technology.

Except for adapting the uncomfortably adult version of Where the Wild Things Are and an eclectic career in short film writing, Spike Jonze hasn’t yet penned an original idea as a screenplay and has strictly been known as the filmmaker who contained Charlie Kaufman’s oddities with a confident and complementary filmmaking style. However, with the arrival of his screenplay for Her we are launched down the rabbit hole of Spike Jonze’s mind that reveals a true form of self-expression aided with an inventive, humorous, and surprisingly emotional viewpoint that hints toward an effective auteur spirit. The film follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a relatively antisocial depressive in the middle of a divorce who, considering his emotional detachment, ironically works at an expressive writing service penning thoughtful letters to the loved ones of clients where in the future people’s feelings are capitalized for others to perform as a service. This is a simple yet fitting character setup that highlights the rampant disconnection of Jonze’s eerily prophetic and technologically dependent society that Theodore becomes the mirrored representation of this advanced green society with all of its convenient potential and ultimately its lonesome flaws. When Theodore purchases a new Siri inspired operating system called the OS1 to link his technological devices, which he names “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson), he begins furnishing an unconventional romance with the bodiless voice due to his isolated depression and her evolving consciousness that stimulates, or rather authentically experiences, actual human emotions. The tone of the story within Her contains an odd mixture of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and perhaps a touch of a retelling of Pinocchio creating a futuristic world of loneliness and utilizing characters that hold deep and relatable desires ranging from the want to be loved to the yearning to be real. Throughout Jonze’s script this pure focus on his multidimensional characters from Theodore and his antisocial peculiarities to the bodiless “Samantha” and her growing fascination with learning about the full human experience gives his science-fiction tale an immense amount of sympathetic heart that makes even the weirdest of moments understandable. Jonze has learned a great deal from Kaufman’s surreal writing which has rubbed off on the stylish director resulting in a complexly written film that balances character study, unconventional romance, and underlining science-fiction contemplation utilizing fully felt sardonic humor and authentic pain that’s exhibited with an equally refreshing cinematic presentation.

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Jonze’s storytelling strength has always been evident in his carefully restrained direction and through the use of naturally delivered guerilla and occasionally smooth cinematography combined with effective editing and incredibly detailed production design he immerses us into strange worlds making the unfamiliar quite familiar in emotional tone. In all of his films, whether or not they were originally conceived by his interpretation or bringing to life Charlie Kaufman’s obscure vision, there is a consistency of style that melds technical mastery with an emotional connection all through the feeling he generates in the film’s production surroundings. This is just as true with the production design for Her that effectively uses softened colors (light red on Theodore’s shirt and apartment walls), careful manipulation of light, (an almost sepia tone through the morning windows), and pristinely subtle designs in the furniture and believably advanced technology to not only make this futuristic world feel possible but it also reflects the loneliness that is ingrained within Theodore and the people around him. With the aid of the marvelous cinematographer Hoyte Van Hotema (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) there is an incredibly smooth texture to the imagery as he carefully captures both the mood of sadness coupled with the colorful hope of romance immersing us into Jonze’s unique vision. The beautiful use of close-ups and the lingering steadiness of shots that get us into the subjective loneliness of Theodore or the absence of image giving us “Samantha’s” subjective perspective are enhanced through Jeff Buchanan and Eric Zumbrunnen’s selective editing that seems just as natural as the clarity of the camerawork. Jonze as a director knows exactly how his film should look, feel, and flow and through all of these technical processes he creates a believable futuristic world not only in aesthetic but also in an enrapturing tone. Though some creative aspects of the film don’t work as effectively as others, one being a rather vulgar cartoon video game character that seems annoyingly exaggerated rather than thoughtfully chosen, this is miniscule in the overall impact that Jonze delivers through his thoughtful, emotional, and credible talents as a director.

What’s probably the most effective yet understated quality within Her is Jonze’s talent for obtaining performances from his cast that ignite the believability of his drastically unfamiliar surroundings and make the unconventional seem quite natural. Because the setting is an unknown futuristic entity that only has minor similarities to our known world it’s important that the actors project a firm sense of plausible connection with these unfamiliar surroundings to make the experience connect. One astonishing performance aspect to the film is the fact that Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of a bodiless operating system that has an evolving intuition and the capability of feeling human emotion is brought to believable fruition through her vocal softness that naturally implies sweetness, curiosity, jealousy, and ultimately pain. Though a detriment to her casting immediately comes with a visage of her known curvaceous beauty she powers through this initial bias giving her depiction of “Samantha” a varied performance of both emotionality and sensuality without the aid of her physical attributes. On the other feminine side of Theodore’s character is the friendship or more he has with Amy Adams’ character appropriately named Amy as she emits understanding and connection with Theodore that complicates his comfort with being immersed in loneliness alongside “Samantha” and it’s due to her ability as an actress that makes this complication felt. However, the entire weight of the film is firmly placed on the adaptable acting talents of Joaquin Phoenix who guides us through his various emotional states with ease and captures our attention with every subtle facial change and every physical quirk showcasing a mastery of the art. Lately it seems that Phoenix is becoming one of modern day acting’s most chameleonic performers and with his physically immersing work in The Master and his now subtle emotional complexity in Her there is no doubting his effortless ability to project so much using so little. If Joaquin Phoenix hasn’t yet impressed you in his entire body of acting work then you will walk away from Her praising his unique abilities to generate emotional clarity with facial subtlety, vocal vulnerability, and a believable command within his physical presence.

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One part of the human condition is that we are definitely sociable creatures and Spike Jonze has chosen to highlight this unique human quality by juxtaposing it with our society’s antisocial development through technological dependency. Social criticism means nothing without a believable and emotional connection to the story relaying that very message and Her possesses all of the needed qualities to maintain our investment in a characters that represent the emerging complexities of the advanced programming age. Ambition can often miss connecting with its inquisitive potential, a criticism that could mildly be stated for Jonze’s alienating Where the Wild Things Are, but with Her it’s clear that ambition has gracefully connected with its creative potential making a science-fiction film that seems hauntingly prophetic instead of humorously reflective. Spike Jonze has crafted a multilayered film that puts character at the forefront of an unconventional romance and through his talents a visual director he brings about emotionally connecting performances that build naturally alongside his embrace of beautiful cinematography, ebb and flow editing, as well as an immersing production design. Though there is sweetness to the relationship at the heart of Jonze’s film there is also a disconcerting message on the epidemic of loneliness that will follow in the technological advancement wake providing a warning in his seemingly conventional last third of the film that pleads for us to embrace the physical connections that surround us instead of the digital connections that impede us.

Grade: A-

Side note: This film will be released December 18th in limited theaters

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