Sunday, December 22, 2013

Her: Love at First Byte

Dir. Spike Jonze
120 Minutes
Rated R
Watch Trailer

I don't have a grasp on the year, but I distinctly remember when I first used Cleverbot, a website that allows you to hold a "conversation" with a computer program.  The surprise and novelty of it was pretty astounding at the time, but as you continued to use it, it became clear that there were limitations to its understanding and capabilities.  In Spike Jonze's Her, that is no longer a problem.  Set in the not-too-distant future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), still getting over the separation from his wife (Rooney Mara), is a lonely soul whose only avenue for romantic expression comes from his job writing phony sentimntal letters between lovers.  When a new product is released, the first artificially intelligent operating system, the lovelorn Theodore installs it and meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the female personality created in his computer, who he soon becomes romantically involved with.  With a concept fit for either a horror or light comedy, Her is a refreshingly melancholy, honest look at the possibilities of technology and loneliness, if they advance enough.

Her is a brilliant send-up of how disconnected our relationships are becoming nowadays, and I thought it was strangely one of the best "sci-fi" movies of the year.  The world-building is subtle but amazing, filled with little details without explaining things ad nauseam; there's no "tour guide" bringing us through this world, it just is. There are certain sci-fi ideas in here that really made me both think and become uncomfortable - in a good way - about artificial intelligence that I'd never seen in a film before (such as, if an AI computer can learn to love, would it desire to be human, or have human emotions?  Would it be capable of a "human" level of sexuality?).  The heady sci-fi themes are integrated perfectly into this central romance between Samantha and Twombly so that it's not strange or "dirty," but almost melancholic in that these two "people" will never be able to carry a real, physical relationship.

Phoenix carries the film totally on his shoulders since he has to create a genuine love with a person that he cannot react to (Scarlett Johanssen was brought on after Phoenix's scenes were shot), and does a fantastic job.  You really get a sense of loss from his character, unable to move on, and I totally bought that he could develop a sincere relationship with his Operating System - it's actually a little haunting because it's pretty obvious that if this technology existed today, there might not be much human interaction going on anymore.  It's both a frightening and alluring concept, because who wouldn't want a computer personality to help you through life, and be your friend/lover/whatever?

It was probably over-hyped because of all this end-year hooplah, but it was definitely an interesting film that just barely manages to not stray into unbelievability, I believe to the total credit of Phoenix.  While the film does have some comedic relief (one futuristic video game sequence featured a particularly hilarious foul-mouthed character, and Chris Pratt is also funny as Twombly's boss), I do wish there was a little more of that, and a little less of the meandering flashbacks set to the score from Arcade Fire (in fact, the movie likely could of had even more meandering if it weren't for Steven Soderbergh, who came on to help shape the final edit from 2.5 hours to 2).  I think Her is definitely worth watching for its sadly prophetic sci-fi concepts and great performances, but it still ultimately succumbs to a lot of the same problems other romantic dramas face, with a ton of overly melodramatic flashbacks and wistful, "artsy" flickers of the sun shining through the trees.

Rating: B

BONUS: Short Film

This fantastic Spike Jonze short, titled "I'm Here," is what sort of re-invigorated Jonze to re-visit the idea that would eventually turn into Her.

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