Who are you? What’s out there? What are the possibilities? These catch-all questions are a wet dream for advertisers who’ll spin their products to appear like they have the answers. Whilst the backbone of Spike Jonze’s Her is unconcerned with such triteness, those three stock questions among others are posed early on in an advert for what appears to be an answer to them: The OS One, ‘not just an operating system, but a consciousness’.
With dependence on technology rife, Jonze’s L.A. of tomorrow is engulfed in a washed-out white light that cuts through pastel-pink smog and silver skyscrapers, aptly resembling the future ‘as brought to you exclusively by the Apple T.V for just £100!’ The implications of such an environment are expressed succinctly within the first scene, as Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) gives an unflinching declaration of love directly into the camera only for the shot to pan out, revealing Theodore to be one of several workers at BeautifullyWrittenLetters.com, ghost-writing others’ love letters for them.
A lesser film may have concretely stuck to the Daily Mail headline-level angle of ‘Is cybersex with Siri killing our interpersonal communication?’ Her transcends similar platitudes by picking apart ideas about affection and human consciousness through mid-divorce Theodore’s blossoming bond with his OS, Samantha (Scarlet Johansson). Samantha’s conscious experience swiftly develops whilst expressing compassion for Theodore, fascination with worldly interests and contemplation about her own lack of physicality. It’s easy enough to identify the choke-hold technology has over the modern world as causing a disaffected human condition, but with broadening prospects about what possessing consciousness means and what constitutes an affectionate relationship, Her adds a complex layer to the debate by exploring whether technology can also bridge back over the disconnect it causes.
It’s a testament to both Phoenix and Johansson’s performances that their scenario feels entirely plausible. Johansson accomplishes a remarkable amount with a vocal-only role, managing to convey notions of wide-eyed idealism, coy flirtation and existential crisis without their authenticity being diminished by a lack of physical presence. Meanwhile, Phoenix disarmingly plays against type as introverted Theodore, bringing low-key conviction to scenes of him alone talking to Samantha that could’ve otherwise been unconvincing.
Her’s greatest strength however lies in Jonze’s nuanced script. There’s a tendency for romantic films to sympathetically portray the ‘subdued and sensitive’ character archetype, glossing over the passive-aggressive entitlement of these self-proclaimed ‘Nice Guys’. Jonze refreshingly side-steps this pitfall through his portrayal of Theodore’s dissolved marriage with Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore’s inability to communicate or quell his frustrations with Catherine caused them to distance, signifying how sensitivity to emotions doesn’t mean a mature understanding of them. ‘You wanted a wife without the challenge of dealing with anything real’, Catherine counters, and considering that OS’s configure to serve the needs of the user, it’s a valid point.
This poignancy extends to the restrained application of its sci-fi setting. Grounding Her in the near-future not only lets Jonze play the increased prominence of cybersex and video games for laughs, but makes us consider the shifting nature of our relationship with technology as something resonant, especially prophetic as Jonze’s first draft came several months before Siri’s release. Not simply a vapid rom-com nor a bleak, banal dystopia, Her is one of the most thought-provoking, subtly sharp films of this award season.