O.S. I Love You
Scarlett Johansson has never been better, and Joaquin Phoenix is endearingly innocent in Spike Jonze’s barely-sci-fi vision of future romance. It’s comforting and unsettling at the same time.
15, 126 min
It’s Los Angeles, Jim, but only slightly not as we know it. It is the near future, year unknown, and people play video games through wall-sized tellies and have strange virtual dates via headset. The quietly separated Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) has a sedentary day-job writing love letters, greeting cards and other such things via speaking the words to his computer. But that’s not the strangest thing about Spike Jonze’s latest film.
A new technological development has come along which allows each and every human being to have their own computer Operating System, tailored to their own personality, available on all of your devices all of the time, and sporting a voice. For Theodore, it’s basically love at first hearing, a bit like that episode of The Big Bang Theory where hopeless romantic Raj falls in love with Siri, but expanded to feature-length, and with a surprising amount of emotional resonance. This concept, along with the others Jonze puts on show here, is just far removed enough from reality to be disquieting, though still scarily possible, and so this world is recognisable enough to be near-now. Some of the things which have happened in the interim are a darn shame.
So, back to the story. The glum Theodore takes advantage of this new tech thing and gets his own OS, as they start to be called, and ‘she’ instantly names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) – as you do. I’ve never been that convinced of Johansson before, but here she convinces more with just her voice than she has ever done with the rest of her. There’s a beguiling innocence to Samantha, which is almost mirrored by Theodore, who is ready to go back to simply looking at the world, rather than experiencing the problems of a ‘real’ relationship. There’s a touching vulnerability to Phoenix’s performance here, and he is unrecognisable from his mad-dog turn in The Master, proving himself to be one of the most capable and versatile actors of recent times.
Amy Adams is great as Theodore’s frazzled longtime lady-friend, uh, Amy, who proclaims that love is ‘like a form of socially acceptable insanity’. Discuss amongst yourselves. Rooney Mara, more than a little creepy in last year’s Side Effects, is also good as his ex-wife in a handful of scenes which pose some important questions, both for Mr. Twombly and for us, about what it is that constitutes a proper relationship. However, our bespectacled average Theo thankfully manages to (in some ways) put paid to her gripes, because his and Samantha’s relationship advances like a real one, with highs and lows – and even a twist, somewhat unexpectedly for this sort of film.
But the real stars here are perhaps not the actors, brilliant though they are, but the ideas that the film engenders. What’s it like to be in love in a digital age? Is technology interfering too much in our lives? How can it help us? How does it hinder us? All these things come up, but never in a probing, in-your-face way, and they contribute much to the feeling that Her is more of a quiet triumph, in the mode of Nebraska, rather than the sometimes-OTT nature of the Grand Budapest Hotel or the visceral, brooding feel of 12 Years A Slave. Helped along by a suitably ambient score from Arcade Fire, we drift through Theodore’s story, just as everybody else seems to do – passers-by in the street are stuck to their phones, making all human communication much more significant.
But this is the clincher, and the question that the film has answered by the end – can technology replace real human intimacy? I think we all already know, but the way things play out is both discomfiting and strangely moving. The ending is just right for all parties concerned, and it left me feeling weirdly hopeful. For all the hang-ups on electronics, this is a disarmingly, brilliantly human endeavour, one which may end up being more affecting than your non-microchipped brain could compute beforehand.
I just wish that in the future, they would write letters properly.