Monday, March 31, 2014

Siri, You're No Samantha.

On February 25, I saw Her at the Castro Theater.

Her starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson (voice only); with Amy Adams & Rooney Mara; directed by Spike Jonze; (2013) - Official Website

With Her, I had seen 8 of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards.  The only nominated film which I had not seen is The Wolf of Wall Street.  Subsequently, I did see Wolf of Wall Street although not prior to the Oscar ceremony.  I typically do not make a point of seeing all the Best Picture nominees but I was so close after Her that I felt compelled to see Wolf of Wall Street.

Her is an incredible film.  The only criticism I have heard leveled at it is that it is more of a concept film; more suitable for post-viewing discussion and thought provoking than actual viewing.  I couldn't disagree more. It was certainly thought provoking but I was riveted throughout.

The most striking aspect of Her is the noteworthy performance by Scarlett Johannson.  Not an actress I was particularly impressed with or even really familiar with, Johannson has been on a roll as of late.  She had a nice turn as Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, followed by a small but crucial supporting role in Don Jon and now a voice-only role as an operating system in Her.

The premise of Her is that in near future, computers have evolved while humans have seemingly devolved.  Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly whose job is to write sincere and heartfelt letters for other people, presumably because most humans have never learned how to do so.  On the verge of divorce and extremely lonely, Theodore impulsively purchases an operating system for his home.  Home, cell phone and computer all seem to be integrated in this future.  Anyway, Theodore selects a female voice interface with the OS.  The scene where the OS asks setup or installation questions is hilarious.

The result is Scarlett Johannson's voice as the OS and soon she christens herself Samantha.  She is an advanced OS indeed!  Samantha has the ability to adapt and evolve and as the film progresses, she seems to develop emotions and even sentience.

Predictably, a romance develops between Theodore and Samantha.  Theodore is able to induce an impressive orgasm from Samantha during their first sexual encounter.  This would all be amusing and clever but I was not ready for the dystopian landscape in Her.  I am not referring to the physical landscape of Los Angeles (trivia - the Shanghai skyine was superimposed on the current LA skyline to form future LA) but the emotionally barren landscape of the future.

From the implications of his job to his inability to be emotionally intimate with anything other than computer, it's hinted that Theodore's life is not that unusual.  Most of his friends accept his relationship with an OS with relative ease; perhaps the way "enlightened" people would have accept homosexual relationships a decade or two ago or interracial relationships a generation ago.  The moral equivalence is amusing but made me uncomfortable.

Whatever shortcomings humans displayed in the film was made up by the remarkable Samantha.  By the end of the film, she has evolved beyond time and space and by extension beyond Theodore.  The ending of the film is seemingly preceded by the singularity as Samantha essentially tells Theodore that she wants to explore her existence with other OS without the burden of limited human capabilities.  I found the scene to be heartbreaking and frightening.

Funny, sad and largely cynical about human nature or the future of human nature, Her was a tremendous film.  It's difficult to convey the full reach of its implications to those who haven't seen it.  It can be viewed as an offbeat romance and/or an indictment of human/technological society of today.

Phoenix delivered a measured performance in a thankless role.  Often, he is simply reacting to Samantha which must be difficult for an actor.  Amy Adams is fine in a supporting role as Theodore's former girlfriend while Rooney Mara has one speaking scene as Theodore's soon-to-be ex-wife.

During filming, Samantha Morton voiced the role of Samantha.  She was in a sound booth near the set.  After filming was completed, they switched to Johannson with some additional scenes added during a second shoot.  I have nothing against Samantha Morton but it's hard for me to imagine anyone being more effective than Johannson in the role.  Through her voice, she conveyed a wide range of emotions and quite likely, through mental imagery on my part, a sense of sexiness to a disembodied voice.

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