The following review contains spoilers
Her is Lost in Translation’s futuristic cousin that likewise has deep resonations for today’s world. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) forms a relationship with an operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), just as Johansson was a companion to Bill Murray’s misanthropic character in Translation. The directors of the two films, former husband and wife Spike Jonze (Her) and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), focus upon inter-personal relationships, loneliness, and communication issues in their respective movies.
Her is much less a movie about the future - though it ruminates on what our lives will look like in the time ahead - than it is a commentary on the way humans interact with each other. Phoenix perfectly inhabits a man who has lost his sense of joy and purpose in the world and who subtly becomes more enamored with life as he finds love in Samantha. The temporal and spatial place Theodore lives in works to reflect his relationship with Samantha. Theodore’s world is painted in warm pastels and cool greys, which are always too synthetic to feel normal. This creates the mood that Theodore’s environment is not compatible with him or Samantha, because they are both, in different ways, products of this future world. When he is lounging on the beach it is overpopulated and the scenes where he is in the woods feel overwhelming because of the endless whiteness of the landscape. When he is in these spaces, the camera shots often feel jarring, and he is usually with Samantha, making their relationship seem less natural.
However, the movie does not make a clear judgment on the value or legitimacy of a relationship between a human and an operating system. Theodore tends to live vicariously through the people whose letters he writes and the characters he inhabits in video games, and rejects human interaction by not spending time with his friends or getting to know potential partners. When Samantha enters his life, she provides Theodore with comfort and companionship. Furthermore, she inspires him to spend more time with his friends and coworkers and to have a sunnier disposition. They invoke change in each other, especially emotionally, which Theodore sees as a positive development. Sam constantly adapts and alters her personality and understanding of the world after spending time with Theodore; everything he says helps her to learn and evolve. He can also visually show her his environment with a hand-held phone-like device, which allows them to bond while people watching, and provokes Sam’s creativity and gives her glimpses into other people’s lives. Interestingly, Theodore says that he and his ex-wife grew up with each other and then grew apart. This foreshadows the eventual end of Theodore and Sam’s relationship when Theodore seems to have changed by understanding the value of human interaction through observing his coworker Paul (Chris Pratt) and his girlfriend, spending time with his friend Amy (Amy Adams), and discerning the limits and peculiarity of a future with Sam. Towards the end of the movie we come to know the rapidity with which Sam has been changing- how she has fallen in love with 600 people and often carries on thousands of conversations at a time. Their romance becomes perfectly bittersweet and fully explored; they have had wonderful adventures and changed each other, but because of that they can no longer be together. They come from two different worlds, a la Romeo and Juliet, but the ending of Her feels more like the conclusion of Lost in Translation than Shakespeare’s tragedy, because Theodore and Samantha appear to have moved on contentedly in better directions.
The final scene sets a reflective, tranquil tone for the movie. It works to quell the anxiety, frustration and anger drummed up in the presiding climactic scene in which Theodore becomes disconnected from Samantha. The scene creates a distressed, tense mood with the throbbing disconnected signal playing in the background which is supplemented by an ominous score. As Theodore goes down the elevator the camera slides with him and your heart pounds. Then it plummets as Theodore trips, mesmerizingly calling the strangers around him into action trying to wake them up from their immersive technology. Samantha’s revelation that she has been seeing other people is perfectly meshed with Theodore literally hitting rock bottom by crouching on the subway steps as hordes of people shove around him. With the camera at his point of view, both Theodore and the audience seem to be seeing the people coming towards him, and the way in which they are enveloped in their technology, for the first time. Theodore is a member of the technology-consumed populous, but because he is stationed against the passing crowd in that scene, it is like he has woken up and can finally perceive how eerily captivated his community is with their computers. This also parallels the way Samantha’s confession makes him rethink his entire preconceived notion of his life and relationship with her. The ending of the movie is so satisfying because all we really want for Theodore is to have a human connection and appreciate the real world around him that isn’t behind a screen. The final scene gives us just that.
Further remarkable about the movie is the way its poignant screenplay, penned by Jonze, deals with temporality. Theodore’s ex-wife (Rooney Mara) is seen only in flashbacks, except in the moment when she and Teddy finalize their divorce. Samantha wisely comments upon Theodore’s tendency to live in the past (with his constant flashbacks), “the past is just a story we tell ourselves.” By the end of the movie, it appears that Samantha’s chapter in Theodore’s life will just be a story only he can tell himself. Part of Theodore’s panic which arises from Samantha’s momentary disappearance seems to come from the fact that if her system malfunctioned and she was gone, only he would be left to mourn and to have the memories of their relationship. Theodore comments on the importance and worth of sharing your life with someone, which Samantha does not immediately understand. The romance between Samantha and Theodore becomes legitimized in the fact that just as in a relationship between two humans, having a partner gives you someone to share memories and reminisce with or have “a story we tell ourselves.” When one partner in a relationship dies, you no longer have someone to remember things with, and the memories you shared seem less valid because now there is no one else who experienced them. There is a palpable void in Theodore and Amy’s lives when their respective partners, Catherine and Charles, leave. When Theodore meets Catherine for lunch, it is as if the two are strangers and have not spent a substantial amount of their life together in love. Their memories together seem false because they can no longer communicate with each other without bitterness or hesitance. The theme of communication’s limits is also explored in Theodore’s job of writing letters for other people, needing a surrogate for Samantha, and Samantha’s inability to express her development and the way it makes her feel to Theodore.
Perhaps the true triumph of Her is the way it makes you empathize for a largely unlikeable, flawed character and an unconventional and seemingly unhealthy relationship. All this while still making you relieved that by end of the movie Sam, and Theodore’s relationship with her, can only be accessed in the story of the past that Theodore will tell himself one day.
Jonze's frequent collaborator and thematic cousin, Charlie Kaufman screens his latest, Anomalisa, on opening night of the Philadelphia Film Festival this week.