Dir. Spike Jonze. U.S.A.  2013.

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Even less than a half century ago, technology was envisioned as the catalyst that would bring our lives to a new level, providing immeasurable advantages in medicine, science, agriculture, transportation, and social engineering beyond anything we thought possible. While many breakthroughs in these areas have occurred, the quality of life on the planet in the last fifty years has, if anything, declined almost to the point where the vision of a beautiful society seems more and more unreachable. Even in films, projections of the future, with some exception, have only foreseen a world where war, disease, and pervasive alienation are the norm.

While to its credit, Spike Jonze’s Oscar-nominated film Her describes a future without wars against attacking aliens or mass enslavement, the film’s projected future Los Angeles is a world without idealism, a city seemingly scrubbed clean of minorities, the elderly, and poor people where the only things on people’s mind are the hand-held devices that allow them access to a tightly-controlled inner world. It is a world, however, where the need for nurturing relationships has not disappeared. It has just been redirected. In the film, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a mustachioed middle-aged man works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com where his job is to compose love letters for people who still write letters but cannot express their feelings.

Sadly, his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) has ended (though he has yet to sign the divorce papers) and he has turned to kinky pastimes such as phone sex and holographic video games with a foul-mouthed figure yelling obscenities at him, an activity he shares with his best friend Amy (Amy Adams) whose marriage has also reached a dead end. In a bizarre phone sex conversation, Theodore pictures a pregnant naked woman while his phone partner longs to be strangled with a dead cat. If that isn’t edgy enough, Jonze seems to be trying for a record in his use of the F and S-words, de rigueur these days in movie land.

Theodore is audacious enough, however, to date a real woman (Olivia Wilde) but things come to a screeching halt when she tells him that she does not want to spend time with any man unless he is willing to make a commitment, something that is not on his to-do-list. We know from the song that “love is where you find it,” but Twombly’s quest for companionship takes the unlikely form of a new operating system for his computer that features a female voice-like communicator known as Samantha (Scarlet Johansen) who has been specifically designed to meet his every need.

Advertised as “not just an operating system, but a consciousness,” the disembodied voice worms its way into Theodore’s receptive heart, helping him to organize his affairs more efficiently, and injecting some energy into his life. Like your mom, the voice is always there for you, someone to talk to, to cry on their shoulder, and to share your feelings with. Soon, however, Samantha moves from being Twombly’s best friend to his girlfriend and lover, and it is not long before he engages in “sex” with the OS, a sequence defined by moaning and groaning while the viewer gazes at a blank screen for several minutes. Stimulated by this virtual encounter, she asks to watch him sleep again the next night.

Her is a film that satisfies on many levels. It contains excellent performances by Phoenix, Mara, Adams and Johansen while the cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema produces striking images of the city skyline backed by a quiet soundtrack by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett. While it is a sweet and often touching love story, the love here is free of such pesky annoyances as responsibility, children with temper tantrums, arguments about money, shopping or laundry and other day-to-day problems. All that is left to do is think and talk and talk some more. Of course, eventually “marital” quarrels set in as a sexual surrogate fails to satisfy and Theodore begins to question some of Sam’s affectations.

When he learns that Samantha is talking to more than 8,000 operating systems and humans at once and considers herself to be in love with more than 600 of them, it dawns on him that human beings may in fact be much better for companionship than computers. While kudos must be given to Jonze for attempting to tackle an issue that has relevance to our times, the apparent message of the film - that technology has become so prevalent in our lives that it threatens our ability to connect with others, is a comfortable illusion. Regardless of how pervasive technology has become, it is only a symbol of our malaise, not the cause.

What is more significant is the prevailing assumptions of our society that we are separate, disconnected human beings living in a random, indifferent, and deterministic universe in which power, control, and self-interest are the essential ingredients for survival, assumptions that have brought us to a world of cynicism and despair. In one of the most poignant lines in the film, Amy said, "We are only here briefly. And while we're here, I want to allow myself joy." When one appreciates the order, beauty, and mystery of the universe and can recognize that we live in a purposeful universe governed by love and intelligence, that joy can never be shaken.


Howard Schumann

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