By Preston Wilder
Play a melancholy song, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) tells his computer. We’re in the future – albeit the near future – so he doesn’t have to click any links or push any buttons; he just stands there talking in a crowded lift, and voice recognition software carries out his commands. No-one around him bats an eye; they’re all busy talking to their own computers. Play a melancholy song, he instructs – and Her is also a melancholy song, the beautiful (if slightly mopey) tale of a man who falls in love with his operating system.
‘What’s an operating system?’ some will ask if they’re not computer-savvy – which isn’t a major stumbling-block, but it does point to something self-indulgent about the film. This isn’t just a case of First World Problems, it’s a case of Permanently Wired First World Problems; viewers who don’t know an iPod from an iPad may not recognise this vision of a world where technology has permeated every waking moment. Then again, those drawn by the sci-fi premise are unlikely to find what they’re looking for either. Her is undoubtedly ‘slow’, for those allergic to slowness. It’s very talky, and the talk isn’t always memorable. In a week when arthouse films came to town in the guise of Cyprus Film Days, it’s ironic that the artiest one of all is showing at the multiplex.
In fact, Her employs its sci-fi premise to ponder relationships – and, more ambitiously, our fragile sense of what makes us human. Theodore’s operating system (OS for short) is an “intuitive entity” that’s been programmed to respond to his needs. It speaks with a woman’s voice (that of Scarlett Johansson), but only because he selected that option; had he gone for ‘male’ instead of ‘female’, the romance might’ve turned into a bromance and the plot would’ve burst like a bubble. ‘Her’ name is Samantha (could it be a Bewitched reference?) and she’s clearly invaluable as a secretary, proofreader and personal organiser – but she also turns into a girlfriend, which is where things get weird. Are Theodore’s emotions “real”? Can a man have a meaningful relationship with a disembodied voice?
It’s a tough one. On the one hand, Samantha doesn’t exist; she’s just bits and bytes. When our hero first installs the OS and begins to bond, the film cuts away to show the objective reality – a man sitting at his computer, talking to himself. On the other, his love for her (and maybe hers for him) is profoundly real. On the one hand, the reason why she understands him better than any flesh-and-blood girlfriend is because she’s been specifically designed to understand him. On the other, does it really matter? Theodore is unhappy; he’s just separated from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). If a romance with an OS makes him happy, why shouldn’t it count? There’s an echo of that in an argument between his friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband, on the subject of juicing fruit. Don’t do it or you lose all the fibre, says the husband. Yes, but the taste of the juice gives you pleasure and that’s more important, counters Amy – who also gets the most poignant line in the whole movie: “We’re only here briefly, so I want to allow myself … joy.”
In that sense, Her is a film about choice, reflecting our choice-driven Western society. It also reflects society in a more obvious fashion, laying out a ‘magical’ scenario that’s only a small step removed from what’s already out there; is sex with an OS really any weirder than sex in a chat-room? (The only implausible part is that Samantha doesn’t have a visual avatar, though of course her voice is inescapably linked with Ms. Johansson’s starry glamour.) But there’s also more than that – because Her questions reality in subtler ways too. “Our past is a story we tell ourselves,” says Theodore, a line echoed in a scene where he watches random strangers and invents stories for them – and echoed too in the way he recalls his marriage, in montages of fleeting moments. The implication is clear: if what we call humanity is something we construct in our heads, why can’t a computer program be considered human?
For all its occasional sluggishness, Her is a wonderful movie – and I still haven’t mentioned the two best things about it (three if you count the superb lead performances). One is the look, a velvety, pastel-coloured smoothness that feels like the film is taking place in a giant womb. And the other is the bittersweet quality – because Samantha, in the end, is all too human. Theodore, devastated by his ruined relationship with Catherine – a girl he encouraged and mentored (they “grew up together”) only to see her evolve beyond him – finds the exact same thing happening again with his cyber-girlfriend. No matter how far we advance technologically, it says, the tale of men and women will always be a tale of disappointment, fading passions and wounded feelings. A melancholy song, indeed.
DIRECTED BY Spike Jonze
STARRING Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, the voice of Scarlett Johansson
US 2013 126 mins