At the beginning of Spike Jonze’s ingenious debut film, ‘Being John Malkovich’, a wooden puppet contemplates its artificiality for the first time when catching sight of his reflection in a mirror during a melancholic nightmarish sequence that has the feel of ‘Toy Story’ turned dystopian.
Jonze’s fourth feature, ‘Her’, gives us another artificial entity but this time without strings or, indeed, a body and takes the form of a new computer operating system within a future society that is closer to us time-wise than we are to ‘Being John Malkovich’. How strange it seems fifteen years down the road that an artificial consciousness at the other end of a hand-held device would have been no more than a distant prospect back then but Jonze can present it today within touching distance of our world without anybody batting an eyelid.
Yet, the love story at the film’s heart is as old as fiction itself, giving the film an odd retro vibe with the dialogue often looking back as much as forwards but unmistakably, commenting on the here and now of contemporary society’s nitty gritty in a way that only Jonze could.
And the mise-en-scène is baffling to the point of being disconcerting; a weird paradox that has the future both shiny in a Californian sort of way but muted at the same time, constantly denying us any bearings and straddling the utopian/dystopian border.
What a wonderfully surreal and innovative concoction this is. It had to settle for best original screenplay at the Oscars but, out of all the nominees, this one has the best chance of enduring, making a dent in the film canon.
Joaquin Phoenix seemed born to play Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’; his edgy star persona perfectly in alignment with character. Here he takes on the appropriately named Fifties style hipster, Theodore Twombly, who is as geeky as he sounds and Freddie’s binary opposite. And yet, there is a warmth and sincerity in this portrayal, an effortless blend of nativity and charm that makes him so engaging that we never once consider that Phoenix is playing against type until after the final credits.
Theodore earns a living – and a pretty good one at that if his state of the art Manhattan pad is anything to go by – writing love letters for clients without Theodore’s poetic flare for capturing tenderness but longing to express it. But there is more to it than that; these letters/surrogates portray Theodore’s yearning for romance but one that his self-doubt constrains – prohibits even – a ready made excuse for avoiding commitment.
‘You always wanted a wife without the challenges of someone real’ his estranged spouse tells him upon discovering that he had fallen in love with Samantha, a computer operating system’s voice and personality with a Blade Runner type capacity for intellectual curiosity and developing emotions.
Samantha is playful and witty, always ahead of the game and, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, she makes even the most mundane detail sound flirtatious, bordering on the ‘come-to-bed’ seductive. She seems to understand Theodore so well but has access to everything on his computer instantaneously – are computers e-clones of ourselves?
He teasingly defines Samantha as being no more than a computer voice during one pretend word/e-pillow fight. “I can understand how the limited perspective of an unartificial mind might perceive it that way” she responds. But these e-personae – Theodore’s and Samantha’s – are as real to us as them – we are taken in by this fantasy hook, line and sinker – and Jonze creates what should have been a shocking simulacrum but it comes across as being as natural as a kitchen sink drama. And that is the point – e-personae are a form of reality in all their falseness, whether we like it or not.
Their relationship has the front loaded highs and gradual lows that have underpinned virtually every cinematic marriage drama but just as Theodore settles for those familiar compromises, Samantha hooks up with other computer operating systems and expands her ‘artificial mind’ to have multiple conversations – and relationships – simultaneously; a natural e-love Sixties style. He cannot comprehend, let alone, rationalise it, and nor can we. Samantha has left Theodore and the audience behind with a mind blowing twist that looks – rather sounds – like cheating on a mass scale but somehow seems to expose a terrible paranoia at the heart of the human condition; the excrement of a primitive intelligence.
Theodore does have a counterpart in the non-computer alternative real or, rather, fading pre-unreal society. Amy is his soul mate, played with openness by Amy Adams, and she would have been Theodore’s sparring partner/lover in a routine indie romCom but, following Jonze’s ruthless logic, she is partial to a bit of artificial intelligence too. They both chase e-versions of their own self without realising it, looking for a lost ‘I’ in computer operating systems created from their own electronic data in this (un)real mutation of a me-me-me society where nothing and everything exists; a conceit that defies our outlook/understanding without a new one to fall back on – recognisable to us as a Baudrillard conundrum – just – but lost as a new ‘norm’ in this futurish society.
Those who doubted whether Jonze could do the business without a Charlie Kaufman script, now have their answer. No other film has ever tackled e-personae with such penetrating intelligence as this and it should have won the Oscar.
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