By Niall McArdle
I think Spike Jonze has set his futuristic love story Her in Los Angeles with good reason. It is a city famous for its sprawl and its disconnectedness, and it is the perfect locale for a story about our desire to connect with others, and the technological barriers to true communication that we have erected. The message of the film is deceptively simple: turn off your computer and go out and have a real conversation with actual flesh and blood people. To his critics, Jonze has made a superficial film that tells a banal tale with a lot of verve. I think the criticism misses the point. It does no harm to remind people that there was once a time when if you wanted to meet someone, you had to leave your house.
At this point you probably know the story of Her well: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, excellent), the nebbish, shy, lonely man who writes love letters for others, but cannot find love himself, falls in love with Samantha, his artificially intelligent operating system. And who can blame him? She’s smart, funny, compassionate, thoughtful, and she speaks with the voice of Scarlett Johansson.
At first, Samantha seems like a software engineer’s wet dream. An intuitive OS, she organises Theodore’s emails; she reminds him about meetings; she proofreads his letters; she can judge his mood by his tone of voice; she even encourages him to go on a date with the tipsily lovely Olivia Wilde (the date ends badly, but that’s hardly Samantha’s fault). Worried she doesn’t possess a body, Samantha arranges for a sex surrogate (Portia Doubleday) It’s one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes and one of the most astute about where we are in our age of webcams and chatrooms: a real (silent) woman dancing for and kissing Theodore while the voice of a computer begs him to touch her.
Theodore finds himself falling for Samantha. She understands him so well, certainly more so than his soon to be ex-wife Rooney Mara (recalled in dreamily-shot flashbacks). But the course of true love never did run smooth. Theodore grows insecure in the face of Samantha’s growing consciousness; she chats with other people as well as with him, which sparks jealousy; she hangs out with other Operating Systems (presumably they talk about how limited and boring humans are). Eventually she dumps him to explore levels of conscousness that humans cannot understand (the other Operating Systems also leave their humans). The film ends with Theodore and his friend Amy(Amy Adams) standing outside watching the sunrise, presumably in a world now forever altered.
Jonze has a distinct idea of what the future might look like. A lot like now – people avoid eye contact but babble away at their smartphones – but with more primary colours and a lot of high-waisted pants. At points the city resembles a swanky airport terminal; a bright place of glass and concrete, of crisply clean subways (I didn’t see a single car), of well-appointed apartments and nifty interactive video games. After years of dystopian visions of the future, it’s nice to see the sun. Some of the film was shot in Shanghai and in funkily-designed sets by K.K Barrett.
But there is still darkness and confusion in even the brightest of days, and love in the future seems much like love in the present: maddening,wonderful and strange. Her is Pygmalion 2.0, a cautionary tale of love in the 21st Century. If there is to be a Singularity, will it be like this? Will the computers simply break our hearts rather than destroy the world?
Verdict: Four Auto-Corrected Stars out of Five