Review: Her: Flawless Phoenix in a flawed film

Written by Laura Elliott

In Colossus of New York, a father transplants his son’s brain into the body of a robot to save his life.

In Colossus of New York, a father transplants his son’s brain into the body of a robot to save his life. In I, Robot, Will Smith learns to view the new range of robots as resolutely human entities. And perhaps most famously, in The Big Bang Theory, Raj develops an emotional attachment to Siri, the automated ‘helper voice’ on his iPhone. Hilarity ensues.

Human-robot relationships are not a new phenomenon in film, television or literature, but in Her, Director Spike Jonze takes the whole concept one step further, by creating cyber-intelligence on a truly epic scale.

The Wonderful Wi-Fi

In a future world not too dissimilar from our own, Joaquin Phoenix’s soon-to-be divorced protagonist Theodore Twombly, introduces us to a seething metropolis run almost entirely by social media, technology, and the internet.

Commuters rush to and fro with their noses buried in phones and tablets. Theodore himself is perpetually hooked up to his voice-automated phone system. And his career is similarly techno-driven, as he spends his days writing heartfelt e-letters on behalf of one lazy lover or family member to another.

So, when a new operating system (OS) catches his eye one morning, it’s only a matter of time before the hapless video-game addict stumbles home, and installs it on his shiny HD screen. 

Enter Scarlet Johansson, as the sexiest Siri substitute you’ve ever heard emerge from a speaker. Or Samantha, as she calls herself, after scrolling through millions of baby name books in a fraction of a second, and picking out her favourite offering.

It’s inevitable, of course, that with a super-intelligent OS who happens to possess the voice of a supermodel, the beautifully-acted but infuriatingly spineless Theodore would embark upon the most cringeworthy love affair of the modern age – complete with phone-sex with a disembodied voice. 

It might have been just me, but throughout all of her moaning, I couldn’t help but wonder just exactly which bit of her circuits was benefiting from Theodore’s stuttering whispers about nuzzling behind her ear. Surely, there’s only so much pleasure a computer without a body can get from a man’s somewhat lacklustre dirty talk? Emotionally isolated. Emotionally isolating.

Unlikely physical responses aside, the best compliment I can give Her is that it certainly makes you think. About a lot of things, actually. Theodore’s world is not so far removed from the one we live in, and there are already instances of people using World of Warcraft and other similar programmes to start up relationships, and even to have virtual sex online.

Theodore’s biggest problem is that, following his break-up, he doesn’t socialise well. Aside from a thoroughly unsuccessful attempt to sleep with Olivia Wilde’s unhinged character on a blind date, his social interaction extends to the odd compliment at work, and an inability to put his arms around “friend” Amy Adams, after her character reveals her marriage is over as well.

In a situation when physically being in a room with other people seems to drive him to distraction, while an emotionally-intelligent computer system with the entire world’s knowledge at her fingertips declares undying love for him, Theodore’s unlikely relationship seems…well, it seems understandable, to be perfectly honest. And that is a little worrying for any modern-day viewer to realise.

Even so, the climax of the film – without giving too much away – ends in heartbreak, and an ill-advised sexual folly with a “body substitute” that’s enough to make your skin crawl.

Despite a near-flawless performance by Phoenix, though, I really didn’t care, and that is the problem with this film.

Theodore is an emotionally isolated character, and all-too relatable, but the overall impression throughout Her is that his emotional isolation leads only to an emotionally isolating viewing experience. It certainly didn’t make me recoil, and it definitely didn’t make me cry, which for a film that’s all about relationships in the modern age, isn’t exactly a plus point.

Perhaps, though, I’m being too unfair. Perhaps this lack of emotion on my part may even be the point that Jonze is making, to show us all just quite how detached from reality we’ve all become.

If so, then this is a modern-day masterpiece. If not, then it falls short of all expectations, despite an incredible setting, premise, and cast.

And that would be a  crying shame.

What do you think of Her? Have your say in the comments section below.