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Spike Jonze’s new film about love between a man and a computer has the kind of plot that can either be an instant hit or go horribly bad. The SOAS Spirit went to find out which is the case.

By Honor Bulmer

Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead in Spike Jonze's new film, 'Her'. Source: Sportsphoto/Allstar/Warner Bros
Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead in Spike Jonze’s new film, ‘Her’. Source: Sportsphoto/Allstar/Warner Bros

Joaquin Phoenix is some kind of cinema chameleon, at the exact opposite of one of those Hugh Grant acting types who play the same damn personality with the same damn dress sense in every film. With the help of just a few hipster props ‒ tortoiseshell glasses, high-waisted woollen trousers and a moustache ‒ his self-transformation into the disenchanted yet hip 30-something-year-old is complete. Though with a name like Theodore Twombly, Spike Jonze lets us know that before we even see the guy.

 Theodore lives a ‘not very social’ existence in an uber-trendy LA apartment which remains literally spotless throughout the duration of the film. Perhaps he just has robots to clean for him, because he lives in a not too distant future where society is bolstered but simultaneously entrapped by a reliance on highly advanced, almost sinister, technology. Either that or the whole film was just an exercise in product placement for Apple.

 Throughout “Her” we continually play catch-up with Theodore’s history via flashbacks which, though sensitively interspersed, read like an all-too-familiar checklist for the modern screenwriter. Teenage sweetheart, check. Intense, passionate relationship, check. Marriage, then unamicable break-up, check. Imminent divorce, check again. These scenes are shot in filtered half-light, with lots of lying around and stroking each other’s faces, accompanied by the mournful (yet beautifully electronic) soundtrack by Arcade Fire. They are usually the preserve of indie flicks – but I guess “Her” isn’t really as sci-fi as the IMDb synopsis might lead one to believe. I mean, Theodore uses safety pins and man bags, for goodness sakes!

 In an attempt to heal his loss, Theodore does what any self-respecting modern man would do, of course. He purchases a newly developed operating system (‘OS’) with the capacity not just to organise inboxes, but for intelligent and progressive thought. Complications aside, Samantha, the name which Theodore’s OS chooses for herself (?), has, conveniently, the rather alluring voice of Scarlett Johansson. Soon, both man and machine fall for each other and Samantha’s zest for discovery temporarily shakes the monotony of his life. The results are meant to be endearing, but are all too frequently the source of half-hearted comedy ‒ especially when Samantha can’t be found because she’s away upgrading herself! Theodore begins to find Samantha’s lack of physical presence inconvenient, which results in an awkward exchange between him, an OS ‘body double’ and Samantha’s ‘presence’, a bungling attempt at real physical intimacy. He also questions the ‘reality’ of her ‘emotions’ for him – frankly hypocritical, since he is paid a tidy sum to ghost-write custom letters for lovers apparently unable to express themselves romantically.

Although “Her” occasionally drags, it should be credited with cleverly translating a popular trope to a reality almost painfully close to our own, whilst managing to steer clear of the moralistic tone. The film’s ending is its strongest part, leaving the viewer with a paradox: the modern mindset is to live in the moment, ‘YOLO’ being the battle cry. Theodore’s friend (Amy Adams) similarly justifies her divorce: “I’m only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.” But this is countered by the clear inadequacy and ephemeral nature of the experiences themselves. Since “Her” suggests no definite resolution, we are left to question the nature of relationships and emotions. What might they mean in a technology-fuelled world?

“Her” plays at the Ritzy Picturehouse, Brixton, until the 27th of February.Ritzy-Logo-RGB-Dark-Grey

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