Film Review: Spike Jonze’s “Her” — Is This Love Affair Creepy? Or Probing?

Is “Her” exploring truths about romance and emotional need? Or is this a creepy look into how far we’ve surrendered to the infantilizing embrace of technology?

Her, directed by Spike Jonze. At cinemas around New England.

by Tim Jackson

Joaquin Phoenix in "Her."

Joaquin Phoenix as the man smitten by a machine in “Her.”

In Spike Jonze’s new film, Her, novelist Eric Segal’s Love Story assertion that “love means never having to say you’re sorry” takes on a whole new meaning. Joaquin Phoenix gives a relaxed and convincing performance as Theodore Twombly, a middle-aged man whose heart learns to adore an operating system, the OS1. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson (her lines were delivered in real time from an isolation booth), the OS1 is calm and implacable. She is HAL from 2001, but equipped with a soothing and sexy voice simulator that can manipulate emotions with sly ease. Think of the artificial vocal emissions of today’s customer service lines and the robotic commands of Stephen J. Hawking’s speech synthesizer replaced by the voice of the world’s sexiest women. And she, that is the operating system, can make use of calculations at a speed that is beyond human comprehension. OS-1, or Samantha as it/she is called, computes, assesses, and acts on (at light speed) every need, mood, and desire. Facebook and Twitter on steroids, she reacts (perfectly) to Twombly’s every utterance. Because there is no competition with a physical body, this new ‘girlfriend’ exists only in the hearer’s imagination. For Twombly, her voice is imbedded in his mind via an ear prompter, where she commands the soundscape, at every moment suppling the desired music or a soundtrack. In fact, the movie audience can’t be certain about whether the music we hear is Samantha generated, or part of the film’s soundtrack. Does it matter? Filmmaking itself is a powerful manipulation.

Samantha’s eye is a small camera that travels with Twombly, often peeking out of his shirt pocket. She watches whatever he wants her to watch. They laugh together at the world, walking through malls, marveling at the human organisms around them, observing and commenting on human behavior, questioning the world, whirling together in dizzying circles. “You’re so much fun,” enthuses Twombly.

He’s a decent chap, if more than a little confused. Phoenix and some crafty direction make the outlandish situation reasonably plausible. The actor shifts 180 degrees from the role of the twitchy, damaged sailor Freddie Quell in P.T. Anderson’s The Master. Here Phoenix is an open-faced, ingenuous, and slightly nerdy loner with a sad mustache and a good-hearted laugh. Shooting in Singapore, Jonze makes use of vast minimalist spaces, the clean lines and immaculate surfaces emphasizing the bloodless efficiency of modern techno-culture. Omnipresent glass windows underline the transparency of our all-seeing, all-knowing culture. The ubiquitous interaction with screens reflects The Now, though with a touch of sci-fi, given the OS1’s amazing processing power and futuristic efficiency. Conversely, Twombly’s slicked back hair, high-waist pants, thick-rimmed glasses, and pastel colors evoke the mythic (perhaps) innocence of the ’50s. It is a disconcerting paradox.

Is Her exploring truths about romance and emotional need? Or is this a creepy look into how far we’ve surrendered to the infantilizing embrace of technology? Are we hopelessly lost in an increasingly solipsistic culture in which data mining, online dating services, avatars, virtual worlds, blogs, head cams, and selfie photos are reducing us into a pile of digital squiggles? (The injunction to “Know Thyself” taking the form of virtual knowledge?) Maybe we’ll not only acclimate to an all-seeing, all-knowing world, but begin to like it.

Twombly laughs, jokes, asks advice, and shares all his secrets with his patient, virtual lover. Of course, sex becomes an interesting issue when your partner has infinite carnal knowledge but no biological body. Thankfully, the screen goes black when our hero takes his earpiece to bed for a round of aural lovemaking. It’s a great gag. Staring at a black movie screen, hearing nothing but the sounds of seduction, the theater audience imagines their ‘own’ beautiful woman while trying to ignore the elephant in the room – that is Twombly madly masturbating. Later, through psychological wisdom and resources, Samantha suggests they hire a sex surrogate who soon appears at the door, silent and stunning, enthusiastic about being a ‘body’ obedient to Samantha’s vocal cues. This mind-body disconnection/connection is a coy solution, but somewhat perverse and ultimately futile.

Jonze’s script spends time examining platonic interactions, but its search for the core of a meaningful romantic ideal is ultimately dishonest. At two hours, the film has plenty, possibly too much time, to play, rather than seriously examine, ideas about the power of attachment, relationships, possessiveness, emotional need, vanity, and even jealousy. The images are dewy, and the music cues (by Arcade Fire) dreamy. I looked around at the audience wondering if some were touched by the conceit of a man loving a machine. Others, like myself, were probably creeped-out.

in "Her"

In “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who falls in love with a computer.

What is wonderful about the film are the conversations that it is undoubtedly inspiring. Spike Jonze deftly employs his skill as an innovative music video director as well as his thematic obsession with dual identities (he directed Being John Malkovitch, Adaptation, and the director’s name had an earlier incarnation, via the musician Spike Jones). He creates a film with lots of easy, highly speculative questions, but no good answers. Doesn’t a relationship require the creative efforts of two people? Aren’t chance and serendipity an essential part of being human?

Today, questions about the definition of what is human are being asked with newfound alacrity. As I write this, I’m reading about George Yao, who became obsessed with the game Clash of Clans: “At one point, he was bringing five iPads into the shower with him, each wrapped in a plastic bag so that none of his accounts would go inactive.” There is the 2010 documentary Life 2.0, which explores the relationships among players and their ‘Avatars’ in the virtual world of Second Life. On my screen someone has just sent me a graphic called ‘The Selfie Syndrome, How Social Media is Making Us Narcissistic.’ Here’s a recent quote on Facebook from Peter Block: “Transformation comes more from pursuing profound questions than seeking practical answers.”

I don’t think I am being a spoiler when I mention that the last shot in the film reminds me of the end of the Taiwanese masterpiece YiYi. When all is said and done, real emotional communication comes down to one small gesture between Twombly and his friend Amy (played to perfection by Amy Adams). Don’t leave Her too soon, the very last shot may be the film’s one gesture of true humanity.

Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed two documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. He is currently finishing a third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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