Sean K. Cureton

Alienation and Love in the 21st Century

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on January 18, 2014 at 5:32 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Her
Directed by Spike Jonze
4 out of 4 stars

Her is the fourth feature film from acclaimed American director Spike Jonze, whose last film, the irresistibly idiosyncratic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, was released back in 2009. His first film, Being John Malkovich, was released in 1999 and was also marked by an offbeat and whimsical view of the world that allowed for a unique cinematic perspective. In addition, Malkovich also allowed for an intense gaze into the mind of Jonze’s former creative collaborator and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Malkovich was followed in 2002 by Adaptation, another creative partnership with Kaufman, and was by turns more unforgiving and colder in tone than their previous film, but ultimately greater in terms of its engagement with post-modern, meta-fictional, surrealism, marking it as the better film of the two that Jonze and Kaufman produced together. After Adaptation, Jonze and Kaufman went their separate ways, each of them finding their own voice and producing films that reflected themselves more clearly and accurately than anything that they had previously produced together; for Kaufman, that film was Synecdoche, New York; for Jonze, that film is Her.

Where his collaborators have always defined Jonze’s previous work, with Malkovich and Adaptation being decidedly marked by Kaufman’s psychological hang ups, and Where the Wild Things Are being an adaptation of another author’s story with the help of contemporary American novelist Dave Eggers, Her is definitively, magnificently, and undeniably the most personal film that Jonze has made to date. Set around the contemporary fascination with and fear of our growing dependence on technology and artificial intelligence, Her is a love story like no other. Much like Jonze himself, the film’s protagonist Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a single man in the midst of a turbulent divorce from his wife. To make matters worse, Twombly feels painfully alienated and alone at his job where he writes deeply personal and intimate love letters for strangers, serving as a constant reminder of his own failings to produce real intimacy in his own life, without falling prey to the idealized love that he has projected onto his comfortably impersonal clients. When Twombly downloads a new operating system onto his phone, however, and Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, enters his life, offering him a form of love and intimacy entirely divorced from the volatility and unpredictable nature of real life relationships, Twombly falls head over heels for someone both real and unreal, tailored to respond and engage with his own subjective conceptualization of what a relationship should be.

While Theodore is certainly not an exact stand in for Jonze, his creativity and romantic engagement with the world around him reflects the impish and quirky character of Jonze as an artist. Likewise, while it would not be entirely accurate, or fair, to assume that Twombly’s relationship with his wife is meant mirror the dissolution of Jonze’s marriage with director Sofia Coppola, it is also undeniable that Jonze’s relationship with his own ex-wife is reflected in Twombly’s inability to sustain intimacy with another living person. When Twombly decides to date an operating system, or a “computer” as his wife derisively refers to it, Twombly reaches out for the comfort of something that won’t, or shouldn’t, hurt him, but instead will feed his own romanticized desires, taking him further and further into the prison that is the self. While the film engages with the concept of what defines personhood, flirting with the possibility of artificial intelligences being capable of desires, interests, and intelligences such as ours, the film’s ultimate conclusion is more realistic and outwardly therapeutic. By the film’s end, Samantha, as well as all of the other operating systems, metaphorically shed the mortal coil, leaving our world for another, forcing Twombly and those around him to begin to live life outside of the self, and seek the solace afforded by other people.

In Her, Jonze offers one of the greatest examinations of modern love in the 21st century, internalized and subjective to an expedited extent due to our dependence on technology to simulate love and intimacy, without deserting or forcing us to deal with ourselves outside of our own subjectivity. The sci-fi elements of the film are wickedly intelligent and imaginative, predicting a future that might as well be our own, entirely plausible in its projections and diagnostic criticisms of the digital age. The film is also one of the greatest love stories of our time, reflecting on the inability to connect with those around us, enabled by modern technology that allows for a semblance of interpersonal connectivity without the trouble of direct engagement. Her is achingly beautiful, poetically tragic, and thoroughly contemporary, unique and inimitably original in every way. Spike Jonze has truly left his mark on American cinema with this film, and has firmly established himself as a truly remarkable auteur.

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