Twenty years ago I did cinema studies as part of my degree. Obviously this required me to engage in some highly focused analysis of a wide range of different movies, both mainstream and independent.
I pondered on the juxtaposition of gender roles in Aliens. I waxed lyrical about subconscious manifestations of the id in Candyman. I flapped on about the threat of monstrous femininity in The Birds (that essay is on this blog, search it out if you want a laugh). I stared at the isolated state of humanity in Last Year at Marienbad, examined the dichotomy of man in Paris is Burning, mused on the anarchistic allure of metal and leather in Scorpio Rising and analysed the hell out of the mise en scene in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows.
With all this film theory rattling around in my brain though, there have only been two films in the ensuing two decades that I have wanted to look at with this level of artistic scrutiny; Black Swan and Stoker. Now there is a third. Her isn’t quite as good as these other two films but it is absolutely rife with symbolism and ripe for detailed filmic analysis. The Structuralist Film Theory nerds are going to have a field day with this one.
Her is the story of a man who has a romantic relationship with his computer operating system. It is set sometime in a (presumably near) future of advanced technology and faultless web connectivity so don’t just expect two hours of a guy chuckling at the response when he asks his iPhone who let the dogs out. This is an artificially intelligent OS that grows in sentience as each day passes and has the voice of Scarlet Johansson. In terms of cinematic parentage think Iron Man’s Jarvis meets Jessica Rabbit.
Like director Spike Jonze’s other films, Her shows us a world that is an exaggerated or fantasy version of our own. This time though it is only very slightly skewed, there are no portals into people’s heads or remote islands populated by neurotic monsters. What we get is a reality where people have become more reliant on computers and less connected with one another. It is a frighteningly believable vision of where our lives are heading and says much about the more impersonal ways in which we are already communicating with one another in a digital age.
The aforementioned imagery is quite subtle, evident but not distracting, but once you begin to notice it relatively innocuous things take on significant meaning. There are clear metaphors here, like the protagonist being left in the cold both literally and figuratively, as well as other elements that demand deeper thought.
To unpack the best of it here would be tantamount to giving spoilers so I will save the full thesis for another time. You need to just look out for the giant phones matching the presence of people practically as well as emotionally and how the colour of the lead character’s shirt changes from orange when his future is bright to progressively muted colours when it isn’t. There is also one beautiful shot that combines technology with the animal kingdom which must have had Spike Jonze high-fiving everyone around him when he saw how good it looked on screen. It is the best single frame of cinema I have seen since E.T flew across the moon but I won’t say anymore about it here other than ‘it’s the bit with the owl’. You’ll know it when you see it.
It is for these reasons that I always get far more excited about movies such as this and Gravity than I ever will over something like 12 Years a Slave. I admire those films immensely but I want my flicks to be properly told in the language of cinema. Like Stoker, Gravity, Black Swan, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and even Star Wars this story would not work as well if it were played out in any other medium. It could only be a movie.
Joaquin Phoenix seems an interesting choice to headline what is essentially a romance. He certainly isn’t your classic leading man but clearly Spike Jonze has never deliberately gone for A-Lister casting and even when he has, he stripped them of any pretty boy attributes. Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly is sympathetic but also a little bit creepy and it is hard to think of anyone who could have played this contradiction as convincingly. You don’t need to love the guy to enjoy the film and I wasn’t particularly willing the relationship to work (this isn’t When Harry Met Siri) but this made me no less curious about the resolution.
It is tempting to judge a guy who falls for a machine and interestingly while some characters in the film do, others don’t. This is not necessarily a forbidden love (it’s not BrokeMac Mountain) and frighteningly it is only a slight extension of the way people already communicate over the web and phone networks, even in the pursuit of ‘love’ and affection. (This is highlighted in the film with a nice voice cameo by Kristen Wiig.) All electric voices have a human behind them indirectly or otherwise and we don’t look down on Skype or email so should Theodore’s interactions with his smarter than smart phone be considered any different? There is an intelligent voice at the end of the line and he is responding to it.
As Johansson’s disembodied Samantha grows intellectually and emotionally, starting to have her own electric dreams, there are obvious comparisons to be made with other artificial intelligence movies. Her manages to do something different though and it’s not just a talking computer film with a romantic twist (it’s not Notting Hal). Samantha has no evil plan or Pinocchio complex, instead having a character arc all of her own. An arc that is simultaneously inevitable and surprising.
Her is a great movie but it may not be compatible with everyone. If you go in expecting Ruby Sparks meets Robot and Frank then you won’t be disappointed but it delivers so much more than that. It definitely has a mind of its own.
The ISWYS Test:
1. Is there a female lead?
2. If that character was your sister would you respect her?
3. If your sister did those things would you proudly tell all your friends about it?
Her has three very real female performances (in that they are honest and the characters actually exist) from Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde but it’s rating on the ISWYS test (and the Bechdel Test) depends on whether you consider the female operating systems in the film to be female. They obviously have women’s voices but this is a user setting rather than a gender. For the sake of this test I am not going to include them as family relationships cannot be applied. Looking instead to Amy Adams, she is an intellectual character who shows strength and compassion (almost unrecognisable from her turn in American Hustle) so I’m giving the film a full three.
Is this one for the kids?
As a 15 this is clearly not a family film. The sex scenes, both real and simulated, are relatively explicit and there is a fair amount of swearing (both real and simulated).