Friday, January 17, 2014

her (2013) – Review

Review: Her is a fascinating and aesthetically compelling look at loneliness in the age of modern relationships. The film is about Theodore Twombly, a writer who has recently split-up with his wife and companion since childhood (seemingly not by his choice). Theodore is stuck in the past, the good and the bad memories haunt him and he is unable to move forward, transfixed in a stupor of loneliness and despair in a world that seems closed off. That is until he installs a new intelligent and aware operating system, which names itself Samantha. Theodore finds that he has a real connection and affection for Samantha, and even thinks he might be falling in love with her. But is it just another excuse for him to continue to isolate himself from what is happening outside in the world of actual physical people? The film is set in Los Angeles in the near future.

The concept behind Her is a bit weird – a man who falls in love with his OS. But writer-director Spike Jonze wins the audience over by making his lead character Theodore very relatable and by using the concept as a way to explore the transformation of modern culture, including modern relationships. That is not to say that the film does not exhibit very quirky moments and characters, as it does – because, after all, it is still a film by Jonze, a champion of the aesthetically interesting and conceptually strange.

The look of the film is fantastic. Things more or less feel similar to today, just a bit more compartmentalized with LA (doubled at times by Shanghai’s Pudong district) looking more congested (if that is possible) and featuring a lot more towers, interesting architecture, and more colorful displays and lights (LA becoming more like an Asian metropolis similar to Pudong or Tokyo).  People are often alone in the film, engaged with their electronic devices. Yet there are still people conversing with other people in public as well; it is not a society that has completely become modular, but it certainly seems to be trending that way.

With the advent of this new advanced intelligence and awareness in the OS, people find that they can have full experiences (be it friendship or on a deeper emotional level) without interacting with real people. It is a logical next step in a culture that hires third parties to compose personal correspondence for them (the job Theodore has – he writes letters for people), a culture that is constantly online, whose main method of communication involves technology, a culture that is not too far removed from our own. Already, we interact socially online to such an extent that real life contact is seemingly becoming a secondary activity, reserved only for specific occasions and activities or a particular few people. We are content to communicate via technology, often without the experience of actual human interaction (i.e. sending text messages instead of physically talking to someone in person or on the phone). Convenience has become paramount, overshadowing other forms of interaction. Isolation is also in many ways easier and less stressful. There are so many expectations when one ventures into the world. Isolation and technology offer a protective shield.

Thus, in our world, our culture is it not impossible to believe that the next step involves people engaging in meaningful relationships with objects that emulate human emotion and for all intents and purposes can imitate to the full extent possible the same experience that people can have relationship wise through technology (i.e. conversations via phone, text, email, et al.). If this is possible, what is the difference between engaging emotionally with a real person and software if the interaction is the same? In this way, Jonze makes Her and Theodore’s relationship with Samantha feel real and emotionally vital. This scenario, while maybe conceptually strange, is in fact very believable in context; plus, the audience actually cares about not only Theodore but also Samantha. She might as well be real because her personality and emotions sure seem to be.

And yet, Jonze seems to be making a clear statement with the film that we as a culture have become too dependent on technology as a means of social interaction. The film is completely respectful to Samantha, treating her as an entity just as entitled to existence as Theodore, but it seems to have an overall negative opinion of humanity allowing society to become a grouping of isolated individuals who purposely cut themselves off from the physical social world. Jonze does not like that print is dead. That physical music (like records) is a novelty. That a beach crowded with people actually features very few people who are in large to moderate social groups. He does not like that we all walk around glued to our phones or with earbuds thereby closing ourselves off from those around us. In this way, the film is actually really sad.

Theodore is extremely lonely, almost cripplingly so. He is so affected by his breakup with Catherine (his wife) that he just cannot imagine jumping into another real physical relationship. There is a gloomy cloud that follows him around (despite his rather bright wardrobe choices). He is just a sad individual, and to some extent has every right to be.  It is difficult to lose what you believe is everything you ever wanted, to lose the person you thought was everything you needed. In this way, Theodore is very relatable for the audience. We have all been there (to varying degrees). Heartbreak is a powerful emotional experience, one that often holds us back. We can recognize ourselves in Theodore – his sadness, his loneliness, his guarded hope that maybe one day he will be happy again, and his fear of being hurt again. Samantha too engages us. She too wins us over with her spunkiness and charm, her wonder, joy, and excitement for life. It is infectious, because for us life has become mundane and tedious (maybe not all the time, but enough that we are drawn in by visceral passion).

But, Jonze’s argument against what our culture has becomes starts to become more and more apparent as Theodore’s relationship with Samantha develops and changes. Humans need physical interaction. It is a vital part of our ability to experience life and emotions fully. We are so lonely and life has become so tedious because this physical interaction (and not just random meaningless sex) is a necessary component and it is missing. We need to experience the world and not just look at pictures; we need to have things in our hands to fully engage in the experience (be it reading an actual book, playing an actual sport or game, taking the record out of its sleeve and putting on the player) rather than just looking at the same screen all day. We need to do these activities with other people who are there in person and not just avatars online, because at that point does it even matter if they are real or not.

Her works because it is touching and emotionally captivating, and to some extent a rallying call to get out there and live our lives. We care about these characters and see ourselves in them (our own hopes, dreams, insecurities, and pain). And on top of all that, Jonze presents a world that is vibrant with aesthetically alluring sights and sounds. The film is a masterwork of style, narrative, and emotional resonance.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Spike Jonze is known for his catalogue of great and interesting music videos (including The Breeders’ Cannonball, Weezer’s Buddy Holly, the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice, and Kanye West’s Flashing Lights). Jonze has also made some of the most creatively striking and eccentric commercial films. His first two, collaborating with writer Charlie Kaufman, are both great: Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. His third was the uneven adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. While aesthetically quite good, it just does not work once Max is immersed in his imaginary world where base emotions rule. With Her, Jonze has made his best film to date. It is just as aesthetically dynamic and interesting as anything he has made, but where it really succeeds is in its ability to capture and really speak to both the plague of social technology that is actually making mankind antisocial and the emotional consequences that have arisen as a result (chiefly an unshakable collective loneliness). I also really like Jonze’s creative imagining of Theodore’s interaction with others (both human and software) online. The sex chat room scene is hilarious and the Alien Child in the game is equally hysterical. Despite the film having a deep sadness to it, I enjoy that Jonze still infuses it with humor and a sense of hope for the future.

Across the board the film is among this year’s best aesthetically speaking. Arcade Fire’s (working with Owen Pallett and Karen O as well) score is fantastic. It perfectly captures the emotional tone of the film, while also fitting the stylistic look as well. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is exceptional. The colors are radiant, yet the sky seems to have solemn tone (probably because both LA and Shanghai have a ton of pollution that sort of just hangs in the air) creating a striking juxtaposition.  K.K. Barrett’s production design is really the standout technical achievement, however. His work too is mostly features a very subdued color pallet, which allows Theodore to really pop (with his red shirts). The overall set design is phenomenal as well (I wish Theodore’s flat was my own). The whole look feels very artistic and specific to the narrative and tone.

The cast too is wonderful. Portia Doubleday, Kristen Wiig (in a voice-role), and especially Olivia Wilde are great in small supporting roles. Chris Pratt is also fantastic and hilarious in a small supporting role. He just brings so much energy and charisma even with a tiny amount of screen time. The same can be said for Rooney Mara. She is mesmerizing as Catherine, even though she is mostly featured in flashbacks and has little screen time. She is able to convey so much in so little time, and her work is paramount to fully understanding Theodore. She is brilliant. Amy Adams just seems to be a chameleon this year. From her work in Man of Steel and American Hustle to her work in this, she plays completely different, yet all engaging, characters. Here, she plays Theodore’s friend Amy, a game designer who (of course) is a little quirky but feels alive and vital (she is not just the typical pixie dream girl). She is Theodore’s connection to humanity. Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha, giving her so much life and substance that the audience completely forgets that she is nothing more than hyper intelligent software – she is alive as far as the audience (and Theodore) is concerned. It is quite a feat considering that she gave her whole performance in a vocal booth without the interaction of the other actors. Joaquin Phoenix too is excellent as Theodore. He is able to emote so much, the audience can feel everything he feels. He is also able to make Theodore a complex character. He is primarily sad and lonely, but there is much more going on as he struggles with past scares/joys and future hopes/fears. It is among 2013’s best leading performances.

Summary & score: Her is a romance unlike any other conceptually, but through the skill of Spike Jonze and his cast it is able to perfectly capture the modern human condition in our culture of social isolation. 9/10

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