Spike Jonze’s none-too-distant future is a world oozing in coral hues, baggy 70’s-esque fashion, rampant train travel, and technology “comfort food” that’ll soothe your broken heart better than mama’s mac and cheese ever could. Inventive video games, voice-activated email, minimalist (yet cozy) design…it’s a future that seems inviting, safe, and efficient. It’s a future we’d root for and hope to see into fruition. Still, despite the world’s gumdrop exterior, beneath the surface lurks a scentless plume of unsettling loneliness. Is the world itself to blame, or does it simply reflect human nature?
Spike Jonze’s beautifully fragile film Her tells the tale of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a mopey employee of a personal letter writing service whose marriage with wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) has recently ended. Bored with his daily schedule of work, video games, phone sex, repeat, Theodore installs the new upgrade for his personal OS and his life is forever changed. His new Siri-esque assistant, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), evolves the more he interacts with it, and before you know it, Theodore has fallen in love with the compassionate, supportive voice on the other end of his earbud.
Unlike Lars and the Real Girl and other non-human/human relationships in films in the past, there is nothing awkward about the relationship Jonze has created between Samantha and Theodore. Yes, Theodore’s in love with his computer, but she seems every bit as real as the next woman and offers him everything a relationship would—support, motivation, sex, conversation. The only thing she lacks is a body and while this deeply bothers Samantha, Theodore is hardly affected by it. He’s happy with her.
What is marveling about the world that Jonze’s has created is how he has shaped a setting where this relationship between Samantha and Theodore is not only plausible, but accepted by its audience. It’s not difficult to see our current technology evolving into something like Jonze’s OS, but when we imagine it ourselves, it’s disturbing and something reserved for the creepy man who lives by himself at the end of the cul-de-sac. Samantha and Theodore’s relationship is not creepy, it’s authentic, and its authenticity is exactly what draws the audience to it. Their relationship is as true as anything any of its viewers have experienced. Samantha’s insecurities about what she provides in the relationship, her bouts with jealousy as Theodore meets his ex-wife, as well as her urges to “talk it out”, ring true to any female’s romantic worries. The way she wakes him in the middle of the night just to hear his voice and say goodnight, and the way she checks in when she detects anything off in his voice, is perfectly reminiscent of the female role in a relationship. As the relationship takes a turn for the worse, and the audience can detect its unraveling, the film becomes more and more difficult to watch because of its relatability. When Samantha asks Theodore if they can talk but she wants to wait until after work when he’s home, we know what’s coming. We’ve all been there before. We sympathize with Theodore and Samantha not only because we know the feeling, but because we’re rooting for them too.
Jonze’s world is striking, specific, and unique. The setting is mostly colorless except for beautiful pops of coral pastels throughout. The clothes aren’t gaudy or flashy, but simple. Los Angeles is more futuristic, but also cleaner, sharper and in some ways, plainer. The clothes reference 70’s fashion of the past but with a twist, and the décor features lots of warm woods and clean lines. Each and every frame is recognizable as Jonze’s Her and it’s this perfectly envisioned mise-en-scène that gives the viewers a space to place Samantha and Theodore’s story in their minds where it’ll haunt long after the credits roll.
This lasting world is familiar while being new. It’s cozy while being distant. It’s inviting while also being unsettling. The romantic relationship is simple despite its complex creation. Jonze’s film is a compilation of contrasting ideas which only aids in its truth. It’s this grey area that makes up our current world. It only makes sense that a similar, future world would also be masked in opposing elements.
Similarly, Jonze’s process of blowing up and complicating the idea of romantic relationships actually permits him to strip them down to their purest forms. A relationship between a lonely, yet functional, man with his computer is a complex idea, but the progression of this complicated relationship, in the end, allows the audience to contemplate why we need romantic relationships at all. What purpose do they serve? How do we benefit? What do we gain from the pairing? If not for procreation, can’t we obtain the same joy from any sort of relationship—human or otherwise? Isn’t joy all we’re really looking for and when we have it shouldn’t we hold onto it as long as we can? Or do we need something more?
Jonze’s Her gets closer to answering these questions than any film I’ve seen to date. The film is so much more than simply a movie about a man and his computer, and it’s exactly the type of complicated film we could use more of.