Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot.
When Spike Jonze tried to browbeat the BBC’s Emily Maitlis into saying she’d been moved by his sci-fi romance, she refused, later going online to give her verdict: “a sad, male fetish fantasy of a disembodied female who does his bidding”. This capsule review confirmed what many Newsnight viewers had suspected during that tortured interrogation: she hadn’t seen the film. For if Her is indeed a male fetish fantasy, it’s an odd one, presumably aimed at the same men who get a thrill from having their member sheathed in sandpaper – a dream in which a lonely man takes a punt on an artificially intelligent operating system only for said software to evolve, out grow him and leave to join a commune of hyper-intelligent programmes in the ether. Yes, that old male fantasy.
Indeed if Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha only exists to do Joaquin Phoenix’s bidding, as Maitlis deduced from a synopsis and a couple of clips, then it must be his desire that she be pushy and needy, the perfect partner for a commitmophobe damaged by the breakdown of his real world marriage. Consequently the Maitlis reading of Her makes very little sense when one actually watches the movie, but if we’re inclined to see it as an exploration of loss and anomie in a technocentric society, then it starts to cohere in front of our very eyes into an affecting and timely movie about the changing nature of relationships in a world where tech had allowed the atomised to talk to one another, fostering the illusion of intimacy.
That it’s a movie about technology subbing for real feeling is clear from the outset, whatever Jonze says to bait interviewers. Phoenix is a pedlar of false sentiments, a man whose job involves “writing” other people’s letters using software that mimics the client’s handwriting. Subsequently he’s au fait with synthetic emotions; facsimiles of feeling; and just as well, because Samantha is just that – code written to mimic human responses. We’re suitably intrigued by Jonze’s premise – the notion of a burgeoning relationship between man and software – to overlook our doubts. For example, when Phoenix decides his new OS should have a female VOICE does it automatically follow that it should have a female brain, or indeed female proclivities of any kind? How is gender and sexuality determined when an artificial intelligence has no chemical component, no biological imperative? Jonze doesn’t tell us, just allows the imagination to gloss over these questions and accept that because Samantha tells us she’s a woman, she is.
This metatexual bit of philosophy starts to matter as the movie progresses however, as it touches on the crucial question of whether the central relationship is little better than the junk sex that Phoenix procures from a fetish hotline. Ultimately, we’re inclined to think there’s little material difference: it’s all predicated on fantasy, there’s no real world component – the protagonists are little better than avatars with put on personalities. Phoenix tells us he wants a relationship for example, but it’s clear, at least to the eagle eyed viewer who’s really watching, sorry Emily, that what he really wants is his ex-wife and that the cheery platitudes emanating from his computer and pocket device is a crutch; a life raft grabbed by a drowning man.
Jonze is canny enough not to make this merely a lament for lost intimacy, though he pushes the surrogacy angle by literalising the conceit in a scene where Samantha sends an actual woman to Phoenix’s apartment to act as her body. Instead, he asks questions about the legitimacy of such relationships. The question Amy Adams tasks Phoenix with – is it real? – is the film’s question. A relationship without bodies, distilled to personalities, is an interesting notion and one can see the attraction of not having to worry about physical hang ups – a world in which a meeting of minds is all that’s necessary – but Her is astute enough to realise that the disembodied relationship is one without challenge, a world, literally without sense – and consequently it’s a deep thinking piece of sci-fi that performs a public service by holding a mirror to a generation’s online madness.
Doleful, sensitive Joaquin Phoenix in comedy tache-glasses combo plays a creepy future-person in a quintessentially whitebread future-world where mens’ waistbands have risen to their navels. And Operating Systems have Artificial Intelligence and our hero Theodore Twombly (I’m, like, huh?) falls in love with his OS and they have, like, a Relationship. Which would be lol if this was a Farrelly Brothers comedy, but it’s a sensitive Spike Jonze meditation on the Nature Of Lurve. In an abstract sense, see. Except for the wanking. Teddy Twombly wanks a lot, thinking about getting inside his OS’s pants. But wait! The OS has AI, right, but no visual expression, which is nuts. Theodore Twombly immerses himself a holographic video game, but his OS can’t even steal someone’s Facebook picture? I’m, like, WTF? Also, it ends with his incorporeal inamorata flying off into the stars or somewhere with a reconstructed virtual Terence McKenna (er … can this be right? I’m afraid so), when Twombly consoles himself with second best – a real woman.
Another totally wretched movie that’s being touted as nuanced and meaningful by people who should know better. You, Ed.
Those future trousers were terrifying, no question.
Almost any movie sounds ridiculous when you strip out everything that makes it interesting, emotional or exciting, but I think you’re being unfair to poor Spike. After all, this is the man who used to live with Sofia Coppola, she of the Godfather Part III, so this is a guy who knows a lot about domestic solitude, loneliness and other people mocking your life choices. I’d argue that giving Samantha a face would be the equivalent of de-italicising the point the film’s making about faceless, tech driven relationships. Jonze wouldn’t wish the audience to confuse A.I meets J.P with a real, warm, intimate human relationship, and it just might if his Windows 9 beamed a 3D fantasy figure into his living room every night. Besides, what filmmaker could be restrained under those circumstances? She’d have to be naked wouldn’t she? You can’t have an OS with a wardrobe, even a virtual one, and do you really want to see Phoenix thrusting into a light show? I don’t. Besides, as I say in my review – is she really a woman at all in any meaningful sense? I’d argue not. I also think it’s worth looking twice at the ending. Yes, Twombly was left behind with no one but the lovely, lonely, vulnerable Amy Adams for company, but as she lent on him did you not feel this was somewhat appropriate – two lonely hearts, previously separated by circumstance, finding each other? Predictable maybe but sensitively handled in this treatment; an ending that hinted at an optimistic union between two flesh and blood people who’d done the old fashioned ground work, building up their friendship in person before thinking of more. I liked that; it felt like a healthy way to close the movie.
Not quite as as empty, or indeed wretched as you say then, not if you’ve ever felt alone or reached out to someone online I think. I wouldn’t say it was profound but it certainly was thoughtful and relevant, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sorry.
Thanks for this excellent, thoughtful and thought provoking review, Ed. I put any Spike Jonze film on my “to see” list, but reading this makes me think I don’t want to wait for home-video, I want to see it now, and possibly more than once. Sounds like Mr. Jonze has made something really special, and I appreciate your intelligent and articulate insights. You’re becoming one of my favorite film reviewers. Please keep up the good work!
I’ve never seen a movie quite as white as this one. “White guys are pussies” is its secret feminist manifesto. I still think it was drafted as a rom-com, perhaps re-launching Hugh Grant’s career. Or Pee Wee Herman’s. Or somebody’s. They kept the jokestore ‘tache/nose/glasses/eyebrows prop when Spike turned up the nuance to eleven, though, and it’s this – and the wanking – that alerts the keen movie archeologist to its laff-fest genesis.
I think my bestest favoritest scene is where he takes his computer operating system on a romantic holiday in the woods, and he wanks it to bits in a romantic log cabin. LOL.
(Please don’t apologise for your views, Ed. It makes me think you may be wearing high-waistband pants.)