a zoo in hell


Her (2013)

I have to say listening to everyone talk about how great this movie was because it so timely addresses our relationships with smart phones made me less and less interested in it. A "timely" science-fiction film is usually a recipe for mediocrity. A film that's sole focus is our relationships with miniature computers is such a first-world idea of drama that it arrives draped in irrelevance. So I hated Her, right?

Nope. This is a wonderful movie that operates on so many levels that it is selling it so short to say it is about "smart phones". That's like saying, for example, that "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is about globetrotting love affairs or that "Gravity" is about space travel. Sure, it is, but only on the most superficial level. Her is considered, smart and visionary. This is a word that is applied to much of Spike Jonze's work, but I think this is the most visionary film has he created in some time.

In many ways this is the film that "Waking Life" tried to be, the film that "What the Bleep Do We Do Know" thought it wanted to be, maybe even a lo-fi "Prometheus". Implicit in the film are many questions that most of society hasn't even thought to ask yet, and the climax of Her is based on a complete inversion of how we understand the world and intelligence.

Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore Twombly) carries the film with dexterity and restraint. There must have been a temptation to take this into over-the-top satire or Woody Allen neuroticism, but Jonze and Phoenix keep it grounded and believably human. Fantasy drama as opposed to fantasy melodrama. Scarlett Johansson (Samantha) is equally adroit at bringing full life to a disembodied voice. Remarkable because that there was an opportunity for her to be visible in the film, but instead they choose to have another woman serve as the surrogate Samantha (Portia Doubleday).

As with his other films, there's a good amount of production design in "Her", not quite to Wes Anderson levels, but enough to make this an artificial world. Lo-fi sci-fi, like I said earlier. Closer to "Safety Not Guaranteed" or "Primer" than "Where the Wild Things Are". There's a lot of good cinematography throughout the film, but strangely this may be the film's weakest point.

There's a lot of visual motifs that are too timely or too current. It's a modern style that works within our understanding of the film; we've seen it in many technology commercials (looking at Apple here), but I think ultimately it will make Her feel dated or shallower then it is. I suppose it makes sense that a film which is, on a surface level, about a product should look like a series of product ads. However it's a style that really undercuts a bit of the potency of the film's foundation.

Given that the film is about the human, transhuman and the post-human, it would be nice to have a been treated to imagery that reflected that changing realities that both Theodore and Samantha explore. At it's worst, this makes it feel like a slipstream novel that flirts with the fantastic, but doesn't really commit. "Her" is much more than that, but many may be distracted by a surface that may obscure, rather than magnify, the depths below.

- T.A. Wardrope