Review: Her (2014)

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Director: Spike Jonze
Screenwriter: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt & Matt Letscher, with the voice of Scarlett Johansson
Runtime: 126 min // Certificate: 15

I am quite simply baffled by the near universal acclaim with which Her has been received. I like Spike Jonze’s previous feature films rather a lot but he’s always struck me as the type of person who requires someone to help rein him in, lest he make a film like this. He’s got an enviable artistic vision, no doubt about it, but when he’s given the freedom to write from scratch – as he has been here – and then direct (of the two, the discipline in which he is more naturally talented) he seems unable to accommodate said vision with the intricacies of the complex ideas that he wants to explore. In fact for all of its ambition, Her comes across as little more than a crude, simplistic, subpar Philip K. Dick enterprise, albeit one with a modern twist.

Set in the not-too-distant future, Her is predicated on one of the most basic concepts in all of science fiction – the relationship between humanity and technology – and as such poses the age-old question “what makes us human?” In a World in which face-to-face communication is so inessential to how we live that people have started attempting to form relationships with their iPhones, Her attempts to hold up a mirror to modern society to stress to the audience the sheer ludicrousness of the situation. Yet whilst Jonze analyses and mocks (albeit lovingly) the modern World, he categorically fails to critique it in any meaningful way, thus his film feels rather bland.

Her’s main focus is on Theodore Trombley (Phoenix), a rather laughable figure who works as a greetings card writer by day and plays computer games and indulges in phone sex by night. His marriage to Catherine (Mara) is in tatters, though he is yet to sign the divorce papers, and his endless quests for new love are nothing but shambolic. To keep himself entertained he purchases a new operating system which has the ability to talk, adapt and evolve. The OS (voiced by Johansson) names itself Samantha and slowly but surely strikes up a friendship with Theodore that, over the course of the film, develops into something much more romantic, sexual and peculiar. As Samantha starts to develop notions of her own existence, Theodore begins to doubt whether the relationship can survive and is forced to change tack in order to keep Samantha in his life.

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At its most basic then, Her is a film about a man who quite literally keeps the woman he loves in his pocket; a man with whom we are then asked to sympathise when said woman seeks freedom. Without criticism it explores man’s fetish of the intangible and the disembodied through its tale of a female who is created, moulded and then manipulated to do her owner’s bidding. Though Jonze does in some sense chronicle her quest for freedom from what is little more than a pointless existence of servitude, and though he makes at least some attempt to explore the existential crises that hyper-intelligent software might encounter, his sympathies ultimately lie with the man who feels that he has been wronged. In essence, Her isn’t about “her” at all; it’s all about him.

Now, Samantha might not be human but because Jonze’s film conforms to most of the traditional dynamics of your classic, bog-standard doomed love story, in which two characters (one male, one female) fall in love, the gender politics of the piece are still essential if one wishes to critique it properly. Samantha might not be a “woman” in the sense that she lacks form but she still conforms to a rather crude gender stereotype; a stereotype that is made all the more jarring by Jonze’s fetishized and idealised writing. Everything from Johansson’s voice performance – which is sexualised to such an extent that she almost sounds like she works for Babestation – to the notion that the OS, like all of the other women in Theodore’s life, is just out to use him until it gets what it wants, sticks in the craw like a batch of phlegm. At best it’s problematic, at worst it’s offensive.

To put this criticism into context, let’s look at Samantha in relation to the other females in the film. In the first few minutes Theodore becomes engaged in phone sex with a woman with a necrophilic fetish for felines. I won’t ruin the details of the conversation but it’s safe to assume that she gets more out of it than he does. Once she’s got what she, ahem, came for, she hangs up leaving him wholly unsatisfied. In effect, he has been used by a woman. It’s a humorous scene that captures the peculiarities of the near-future in which the film is set rather well, yet it’s also a sign of what’s still to come. With the notable exception of Theodore’s colleague Amy (Adams), all of the women in Theodore’s life are presented to us as “villains”. They’re responsible for his depressive outlook on life, for his inability to commit (for he fears being wronged again) and they’re the ones whose stories ultimately remain unfinished. Yet even Amy is problematic, for she is such a one-dimensional character that she might as well not be there at all. In fact, her sole purpose in the film is to give Theodore a human companion with whom he can talk; that’s it. That’s all she does.

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Of course, one can make the point that all of this is irrelevant. After all, it’s not like it’s up to Jonze to break down gender stereotypes. Alas, parts of Her are so problematic that I just felt the need to discuss them, not least because almost everyone else seems to think Her is the greatest film ever made. However, the gender politics aren’t the only problem here. Perhaps it’s because I like classic science-fiction but, to me, Her is a rather derivative experience. As soon as Samantha was introduced I knew exactly how the story was going to end. To give Jonze some credit, he does lace the film with a sort of fatalistic “it’ll never work” undertone but it gets lost amidst his attempts to cram as much into the tale as possible. The film often comes across as a series of short films that have been stuck together to make an incoherent whole. It is, in effect, a classic case of a decent concept being bogged down by dodgy execution.

Yet despite all of these criticisms, there is still a lot to like about Her. It is beautiful to look at and boasts some marvellous production design and cinematography which enables the audience to be fully immersed in this near-future World. The contemporisation of classic ideas works well and I can see how the film might appeal on a basic recognition level. Though far from prescient (these ideas were being written about before Jonze was even born), there are a lot of recognisable notions that don’t seem anywhere near as ridiculous as they once might. Furthermore, though I actually found Trombley to be a rather dislikeable individual, Phoenix’s performance is very strong.

For me, Her is a fine film and nothing more. Though my review might suggest that I hate it, I feel that the positives have been discussed so much that I wanted to focus on what it is that Jonze gets wrong. It is by no means a bad film – indeed, parts of it are highly enjoyable – but it is far from a masterpiece. The concepts aren’t original – and it pains me to see people describe them as such – the gender politics are problematic and Johansson’s performance is… well, it’s sort of awful actually. I’m not sure why Samantha Morton – the original voice for Samantha – was replaced but I’m interested to see a version in which she plays the role to see if it helps dispel some of my more immediate issues with the film.

Is Her bad? Not at all, no… Alas, it is mediocre. I know you all disagree, and I’m sure you’ll all tell me how wrong I am, but so much about it failed to click with me that the three stars I’ve given it almost feel generous.