NYFF Review: Spike Jonze's 'Her' - A Story About Love & Technology
by Alex Billington
October 13, 2013
"Falling in love is a crazy thing to do... it's kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity." We all want to fall in love, but it's easier for some than it is for others. In this modern world consumed with technology and the connectivity of the internet, how do we still find love? How do we still find genuine, real love in a world of online dating, pornography, cell phones and YouTube? The closing film of the 51st New York Film Festival is Spike Jonze's latest brilliant creation titled Her, set in the near future, a meditation on the values of love and how one bubbly, charming man learns how to love (again) with the help of his operating system.
I had a feeling I might fall hard for this movie, and I totally did. I am so in love with it that I went to see it twice in the same day at the New York Film Festival, just to confirm that it's as wonderful as I believe it truly is. This entirely original story is the creation of Spike Jonze (director of the films Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) and it explores the depths, and the complexities, of modern love and human emotions in ways we've never seen any filmmaker attempt before. Instead of making fun of the idea of dating a "computer" and its operating system, or turning the story into a comedy, this sensitive and heartfelt drama is a profound meditation on the importance of love and how hard it is to find and hold onto.
In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a mostly cheerful and well-meaning lonely man who works at a website writing "handwritten" letters. The near future feel of the film is a delicate vision of a time that lies just ahead, where Los Angeles is filled with skyscrapers (most of them residential buildings) and an efficient subway system (yes, there's even a map shown of this improved subway) and technology that fits into our ears and the palm of our hands. However, there's also a bit of a vintage feel to the world, especially with the clothing and the simplistic design of the environment, with pastel colors used often. It's subtle but intricate design work that all adds to a much bigger, much more meaningful story of compassion in the end.
Hesitant about finally signing divorce papers, Theodore tries out a new operation system. After initializing, the OS takes the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and works his way into his life through an earpiece and handheld device. I admire how much Jonze eschews any of the typically cliche Hollywood notions of technology, and how absurdly obvious or big and obnoxious everything usually is. He knows we live in a world nowadays where this tech is commonplace. With Google Glass on the way, the idea of putting in an earpiece and having it direct every second of your life is not far fetched, it may be reality soon enough.
From the amazing but subtle score by Arcade Fire, to the gorgeous but still soft-edged cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema, to the colorful set design, unique costume design, and everything else, this film is the best of example of collaboration coming together to make something even greater than the sum of its parts. Her is also a wonderful lesson in the ever-important values of patience and listening. It runs over two hours, yet most of it is simply listening intently to a voice talk with one lonely man. We watch his face, his every expression, the details of his face, as he reacts and responds to her and what she is saying. And she's growing with him every step of the way, saying more and more profound things as the story continues.
In terms of the story itself, Her is yet another 2013 film deserving of the adjective "brilliant" for so many reasons. Primarily it's for the way it delicately balances feelings, emotions and human relationships with technology as a catalyst and character. As much as it's a heartfelt indie, there's a bold reality to the script, in the way the word "fuck" is often thrown around just like in real life and lines like one where Theodore says, jokingly (but not jokingly), how he can't balance his time between internet porn and video games. Speaking of video games, the best humor comes from an absurd character in a game he plays, but it works. It works, I think, because it's all from the mind of Spike Jonze and he seemed to put every ounce of himself into this.
In all honesty, I believe Her does not actually shun the use of technology, instead it embraces it. Through a heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking story of love, the film shows that invasive technology can actually be good, it can actually help someone learn how to overcome trauma, fall in love again, and live a happier life. We don't always have to look at technology as this evil thing that is destroying our lives is this day and age, instead we can look at it as a tool in teaching humans the importance of physical relationships and how to live a wonderful life shared with someone else. Even if that means falling in love with your computer at first.
The discussion around Her will most likely focus on how bad modern technology has become and how this film shows that we're all becoming machines and becoming obsessed with our machines, but I don't think that's true. Her is genius work of of cinematic art because it explores the goods side of everything, from technology and computers to relationships and emotions; even the bad emotions are important in the end. There is never a moment where technology specifically harms anyone, instead it's all about the feelings within and decisions made surrounding the use of technology, and I think that's where this nuances of this story really shine through. To use one of Theo's lines from the film, "I love the way you look at the world."
For many (very personal) reasons, the films that have left the most impact on me in my life usually deal with love and the emotions involved with love. However, it's the ones that address love in direct yet profoundly complex ways that stay with me forever. Her is one of those instant classics that will make you want to love, if you're not already in love, by the end. That power, that feeling, is transcendent and if something as simple as a movie, made with technology itself, can evoke that feeling then this is thoughtful art at its finest. Thank you, Spike Jonze, for making a beautiful, moving, honest, original film that will stay with me for many years.
Alex's NYFF 2013 Rating: 9.9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing