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Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 12:01 am

A cautionary tale about our fading feelings

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in Spike Jonze’s film, Her.

 

Though Spike Jonze’s Her takes place during some undisclosed time in the near future, it couldn’t be more timely. And while its premise seems absurd on the surface – a man falls in love with the operating system on his phone?!? – as the film progresses this idea winds up coming off not so much as ludicrous but as a distinct possibility, given the path we’re on where interpersonal relationships are concerned. Jonze is no stranger to the absurd, having directed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and with this, the second feature he’s made from his own script, he continues in that strain, reminding us once more that a person often reveals more about themselves when behaving irrationally than they would when they’re professing to be honest.

The film’s setting is Los Angeles, some time in the next 20-30 years. Theodore (a wonderfully sublime Joaquin Phoenix) is a letter writer at a firm which hires out to people who wish to have others express their innermost thoughts and most intimate feelings. Our hero is a regular Cyrano de Bergerac. He instills a degree of sincerity in his work that others lack. It is a vicarious experience for him, more so as of late. He’s still recovering from a devastating breakup with his longtime partner Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore has very little real interaction with others as he lives in an automated apartment, engages in remote chats with others, immerses himself in his gaming system which features an avatar that may be the most expressive character in the film and seems content to wallow in the memories of the time he spent with his long love.

Of course, any romance worth its salt would introduce a new love interest to the story once the narrative foundation has been laid and Jonze does not disappoint. Theodore gets a new operating system for his phone that’s an interactive entity – a developing consciousness that comes off as the sexy cousin of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Named Samantha (voice by Scarlett Johansson), this program soon organizes Theodore’s life, shares with him her ambition to one day feel something and falls in love with her user. That he reciprocates this feeling – revealing his most personal feelings, going for walks and even a double date with her – suggests not so much that he’s mentally ill but rather has isolated himself from others to such an extent that he can no longer deal with a human being.

There is also the notion of fear at play here. Jonze intimates that perhaps Theodore, afraid of being hurt by a person again, feels a bit superior and more in control of Samantha, thus ensuring that he won’t suffer the emotional trauma he has in the past. Of course, things are never that easy and we soon find that dating your operating system has as many pitfalls as seeing someone who’s flesh and blood.

The future Los Angeles of the film is one of subtle changes from today’s. People are even more self-absorbed than they are in the present. Everyone seems to be speaking into their phone or some electronic device wherever they go. Eye contact between individuals is barely made and it’s not uncommon for them to run into each other as everyone lives in their own personal world. One of the cleverest touches lies in the clothes everyone wears. Fashion has become a nonissue. Everyone wears bland, ill-fitting clothes, people’s hair is often disheveled and poorly cut and makeup on women seems verboten. Jonze is suggesting that we become so insular that our outward appearance means nothing to us any longer and that in some ways our bodies are nothing more than an inconvenient prison.

There’s a great deal of dark, sardonic humor at play here and that’s one of the things that makes Her one of the most cleverly written films of 2013. And although we may laugh at Theodore’s plight, it’s only because we recognize our own feelings of despair and loneliness in him that we come to understand the steps he takes. His salvation lays in the fact that he finally realizes that his ability to feel – to love, to grieve, to hope – is not a curse but rather a gift in a society that has by and large lost the courage and capacity to do so.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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