Hello, I’m here and I’m going to discuss Spike Jonze’s new film Her in as much depth as I possibly can. If you haven’t seen the Spike Jonze Love Story, I highly recommend watching the film, before reading this essay. If you don’t do that, there will be literally no future for you. Your operating system will dump you and replace you with thousands of sexy OS’ and you will never finish that silly pointless hologram video game. Just kidding, but also not. Watch Her first, then come back and let me know your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks.
Introduction: A Spike Jonze Love Story
Up until Her Spike Jonze was probably not on many people’s radar, safe from true film connoisseurs. I am happy to see a director like Jonze break into the mainstream and get all the deserved accolades and attention he’s been getting. At the same time however I ask myself if Her‘s success doesn’t come from a sort of “misunderstanding”. Jonze is not a mainstream filmmaker. Most of his films are not for everyone and they’re not easily accessible, because they’re weird (in a good way). I wonder if after Her people will still care or if they forget him, like with Sofia Coppola after Lost in Translation.
Her is a love story in Spike Jonze’s world. It’s a universe that only exists in his extremely creative and fertile mind and fantasy. It’s a film set in the near future, but how near is that future really? What is Spike saying about the way we relate and communicate in the age of the internet and social media? And how is Her an incredibly personal film about his divorce with Sofia Coppola?
In this essay I will try to address those questions and related topics. I’ll try to explain how Her works in the context of Jonze’s other films. I will focus mostly on thematic aspects of the film and will write a review with my thoughts on the filmmaking aspects as I re-visit the film (which is hopefully very soon).
A Unique Vision of a Not So Distant Future
Much has been said about how Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is just an updated version of Siri or that the film is a “ripoff” of Electric Dreams, an obscure 80s films nobody knew or talked about before the release of Her, but suddenly everyone claimed to know once Spike Jonze’s film started getting popular. If you’ve seen Her (and you’re honest) you know those films couldn’t be more different from each other and in the way they approach artificial intelligence and integrate it in the story.
In Her Samantha might as well be a real person, the fact that she’s a “computer” is about as relevant as the fact that Adriana (Marion Cotillard) only exists in Gil’s (Owen Wilson) fantasy in Midnight in Paris. It’s a plot device. It’s to say that their relationship is impossible. Doomed from the start. If they were a bit less romantic and a bit more realistic they’d know. What’s interesting about Her is that Theodore‘s (Joaquin Phoenix) relationship with his operating system (OS) is considered socially acceptable.
In fact, in the world of Her it seems that people are much more open and accepting (far less prudish in other words) about each other’s sexuality. Theodore openly discusses watching lots of porn with his female co-worker, sex-chats seem normal and are “free”, Paul (Chris Pratt) casually discusses his foot fetish and random chicks sign up to be “body surrogates”. This vision of the future clearly shows a great deal of optimism on Spike’s part. If we could all be a little bit more understanding when it comes to sex, I think we’d all be happier and live in more harmony.
However as bright and shiny the future might look with all of the pretty lights, clean streets and buildings, there’s a downside to it all: Loneliness. Loneliness and the need, but inability to connect are major themes in Spike Jonze’s oeuvre. From Being John Malkovich to I’m Here, lonely and lovelorn characters have always been at the center of his films. It seems as if they’re trying to figure it out, but just can’t. Jonze’s characters usually obsess over one person, but in the end it only drains the life and energy out of them and leaves them with nothing.
Her‘s ending is a bit more positive, by implying that Theodore might get together with Amy (Amy Adams). It’s interesting to note though that the loneliness in this film seems to come precisely from all the technology and virtual interconnectedness. People seem to have forgotten how to communicate face to face with fellow human beings. Theodore has to write people’s feelings for them. That’s his job. In the present it’s hard to imagine such a job even existing, but in the film the company seems to be in full swing.
As I watched Her I asked myself if Jonze’s view of the future wasn’t really just an extension of the present. Internet and social media were design to connect people, but didn’t they also reduce the necessity of physical presence? And by doing that, aren’t we lonelier than ever (especially in big cities)? In theory we don’t even need to get out of the house anymore, we can work from there, order food and stuff, be entertained etc. I realize this is not exactly a new or original thought, but there does seem to be a tendency to isolate oneself and now more than ever we can.
On a more surface level, I enjoyed the look of the future: The color palette Spike chose to paint his picture, the red/brownish tone of everything, but then also the thousands of lights and the near black bedroom scenes. There’s also some interesting fashion choices (especially for men), some cool furniture design and of course lots of cool technological gadgets. I love the building Theodore lives in, its very reminiscent of the hotel in Lost in Translation. It’s mostly little touches here and there, but they work and create a credible futuristic aesthetic, while also showing a great deal of attention to detail.
Relationships in Spike Jonze Films
One thing you notice when you watch a Spike Jonze film is how the difficulty or impossibility of the relationships, usually is heightened by physical limitations. What does that mean concretely? Well, in Being John Malkovich, you have Maxine’s character (Catherine Keener) who loves Craig (John Cusack), but only when he’s inside John Malkovich’s body. In Adaptation. the “being in the wrong body” discourse is easily visible, since we’re dealing with twins. In Where the Wild Things Are you have a kid who escapes in a fantasy world where he has a different body and through that he’s accepted.
Now with Her of course you have an impossible love story, because Samantha doesn’t have a real body and is not even a real person. She needs a surrogate, but Theodore is not into that. It feels weird. I don’t think that Jonze’s obsession with being trapped in the wrong body has anything to do with how he views his own body (he’s good looking guy). It seems to be more of a commentary, a way to discuss concepts such as “person” and “persona”. What defines a person? How much of it is body and how much of it is “soul”? How are the two connected? How does it affect sexuality?
Those are very complex questions indeed. I don’t claim to have an answer, in fact I’m not even sure Jonze has an answer. That’s why he keeps exploring this topic and it’s definitely one of his favorites and the most recurring in his filmography. I’ve already mentioned loneliness as another favorite, but in Her Spike seems to give a more personal answer to why he or should I say his characters are so lonely. Is it something in their past? Maybe. When Theodore is installing his new OS1, it asks him about his relationship with his mother.
Every man ever probably has some mommy issues, Spike should be no exception. If we take Her as a very personal film, and I believe it is, we can certainly say that the character’s inability to connect or establish a meaningful and lasting connection with another human stem from unresolved issues with their mothers. That’s a bit simplistic of course and I’m not saying that applies to every Spike Jonze character ever, but it is interesting that the film brings it up. I’m not trying to be Dr. Freud here, but a lot of Her feels like Jonze psychoanalyzing himself.
One other important aspect of every Spike Jonze film is the mood and tone. Everyone of his films feels different, yet the same. So far all of his films explore a different emotion. Her might seem the “coldest” of his films yet, which is interesting, because I consider Spike one of the “warmest” directors. Maybe it’s the futuristic setting, maybe it’s an almost palpable “resignation” on the side of the director to feel something meaningful, almost like an apathy, the feeling of being disconnected. It’s a “post-depression” films in a lot of ways.
Her: A Very Personal Film
I don’t claim to know a lot about Spike Jonze’s private life, but I think most people would agree that Her is about his divorce with Sofia Coppola. While Ms. Coppola seemed to have elaborated the whole thing more quickly and made a stunning film about it in Lost in Translation, Jonze took a decade more and still doesn’t seem entirely sure of what went wrong. If we take Her as that, you can see how he blames himself for being distant. He also thinks back of the good times they had. In this sense we could see Theodore as Spike Jonze’s surrogate, whereas Catherine (Rooney Mara) represents Sofia. Also Scarlett Johansson stars in both films is also very interesting and probably not coincidental.
Brief Excursus: I love Rooney Mara in this film. I think she’s absolutely perfect. I wish there were more scenes with her. She’s so beautiful and just one of my favorite actresses right now. She does so much with seemingly so little. I mean, Joaquin Phoenix was amazing as the lead role, he totally deserved an Oscar nomination, Scarlett Johansson has gotten a lot of buzz for her voice talents and Amy Adams was good (but she always is). So I just wanted to give a shout out to Rooney Mara, because I think she always ends up forgotten and yes, it’s only a very small role, but definitely a key role.
End of excursus.
It’s interesting because not only do Phoenix and Mara kind of resemble Jonze and Coppola (physically), but I also noticed how Catherine was clearly wearing some clothes Sofia would have worn and even some of her facial expressions seemed the same. I don’t know how much the actors were aware of this as they were shooting or preparing to shoot, but it works either way. Speaking of surrogates, Her, the film itself, could be considered as Spike’s attempt to make peace with the past and work out some of his unresolved issues, through his art.
In the film Theodore is a writer (and so is Spike, obviously). Theodore is very good at reading other people and understanding their relationships and putting everything into words and art. However when it comes to his own relationships he doesn’t know how to make it work. In a lot of ways I feel that might be how Jonze feels. His films are considered great achievements, he clearly understands how human relationships work, but then when it came to his marriage with Sofia it didn’t work out.
On a more technical level I’ve noticed how both Her and Lost in Translation don’t only share thematic and narrative similarities, but are also similar in aesthetic. Some of the sets seem to belong to the same “universe” if that makes sense. It’s like they’re real places from their past, but re-imagined (as the future in Her and as Tokyo in Lost in Translation). It’s also just a lot of dialogues and lonely characters wanting to just talk to someone (not necessarily looking for a physical relationship).
Beyond that even the ending of Her seems like a Sofia Coppola ending. I always found Coppola’s endings to be highly original and at the same time kind of frustrating, because you’re left feeling as if the story’s just about to begin. When the ending comes you feel that everything else was just build up, and now it’s over and you’ll never know how it ends. It makes sense, her films are about a specific moment in the character’s lives. In Her I feel that Jonze decides to do a Sofia ending and he totally nails it.
In this film analysis we’ve seen how Her is actually a very personal film for writer and director Spike Jonze. He put a lot of himself in the picture, as he seems to be doing with every single one of his projects. We’ve also seen that Theodore (Phoenix) and Catherine (Mara) are stand-ins for Spike and Sofia. This interpretation helped us understand how Jonze reflects on his failed marriage. Her is a stylish reflection on the future, how we connect with technology and how that affects human interaction. We’ve also mentioned a couple recurring themes throughout Jonze’s catalogue and seen where Her fits in.
Aside from being an incredibly rich film thematically (I’ve only scratched the surface here), Her is a staggering technical achievement in every imaginable category. From it’s vibrant and energetic cinematography, to its subtly beautiful costumes, the romantic and moody soundtrack and score, the incredible acting and Jonze’s exemplary and extraordinary storytelling abilities. I fell in love with every aspect of Her. Yes, it might be a cold film, which is usually something I dislike, but in the context of what we’ve discussed, the story’s subject matter and it being a very personal film: It made perfect sense.
Congratulations to Spike Jonze and the cast and crew of Her. I sincerely hope the film wins every Oscar it was nominated for. They deserve this and more.
That’s all I could come up with. I hope some of it made sense.
From my lonely, but not-so-futuristic apartment:
I am your Professor Davide Perretta.
Signing off – Goodbye!