Movies, Reviews, science fiction, scraping the barrel

Scraping the barrel – Her

Honestly, I’m actually trying to be a more positive critic in 2015, but now that my former reviews from the Chris and Phil Presents site (RIP) have disappeared, it was inevitable I would have to republish my outraged review of Spike Jonze’s film Her, a movie which frankly irritated the piss out of me. Here it is, unchanged, unexpurgated, (possibly unhinged?). Bear in mind this was published about a year ago on the eve of the film’s UK release.

From his innovative work as a pop promo director (one of the few to elevate what is essentially a crass advertising medium into something approaching an art form) through to his feature career beginning with Being John Malkovich in 1990, Adaptation in 2002, and Where The Wild Things Are in 2009, Spike Jonze has established himself as a unique and distinctive director. His films don’t come along too often so when they do, they inevitably become events. Her arrives on our shores on a cushion of positive buzz, garlanded with awards nominations, but too cool to bother winning many (it did win a Golden Globe for best screenplay). So I find myself in the unenviable position of having to explain why I didn’t just dislike the film, I actually think it is a bad movie.

Set in a near future Los Angeles (which appears to have become a kind of perpetual high-tech Ikea showroom) Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a copywriter for a company that specialises in writing personal letters for clients whose communication skills have ironically atrophied in an age of massively connected twenty-four-hour social media. Of course a further irony is that Twombly himself is socially awkward, and in the process of becoming divorced from his wife Catherine (Mara), although he is dragging his heels over actually signing the papers.

Things change for Twombly when he buys new lifestyle software, advertised as the first ever artificially intelligent OS. After a brief calibration during which he is asked some impersonal personal questions, he chooses female as his OS’s gender (there is only a binary choice given) and Scarlett Johansson starts talking to him. The relationship between Twombly and the OS, who chooses to name herself Samantha, quickly moves beyond merely functional and the film moves into a realm of uncanny cyberpunk romance. Which is about all you really want to know about the story.

This is interesting material and admirably engaged with issues of contemporary relevance such as how technologies designed with the express purpose of connecting people and increasing social interaction can actually result in an increase in alienation, how traditional community structures have been eroded, and how ‘romance’ and sex have changed and evolved to incorporate and sometimes subvert technology. There is also the central issue of artificial intelligence, which is one that has concerned science fiction as a concept since it was posited by the 17th century poet Samuel Butler, and has been the focus of films as diverse as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, even Wall-e (to name just a few). In particular Her is quite close to Be Right Back an episode of Charlie Brooker’s satirical SF anthology series Black Mirror. It is in its dealing with these themes that Her fails, and fails very, very badly.

Simply put, this is a bad science fiction. It seeks to present a plausible future, but the emergence of actual artificial intelligence causes no more surprise among consumers than an innovative new flavour of Pop Tart. Anyone who has ever used Siri, knows just how far off even a convincing simulation of communication is. I’d love to see a version of Her set in Glasgow, in which Scarlett Johansson is driven into a HAL 9000-a-like rage by her failure to comprehend the accent.

Samantha emerges as a functional and convincing personality immediately, there is no sense of growth of learning and frankly, given the speed her relationship develops with Twombly, she is – in twentieth century parlance – a ‘sure thing’. If there is one thing a machine intelligence will not be like, it is surely human intelligence. For most of the film Samantha may as well be a flesh and blood girlfriend on the end of a long distance call. Although not a film about an actual AI, last year’s Robot & Frank, managed to create a far more convincing interaction between man and machine, and one that allowed for a far greater degree of ambivalence.

Apart from Johanssen’s voice only part, the female roles in the film are dreadful.

One must briefly consider whether Samantha can actually be called ‘female’ being that she is a collection of code existing in another dimension, which is pretty noodle baking, a shame then that it isn’t a notion that the film explores.

But I digress. The female roles are terrible. Rooney Mara plays a harridan ex-wife who is never really given an opportunity to give her side of the story on her relationship with Twombly. Olivia Wilde appears as a blind date and is both a fantasy manic pixie girl and an archetypal hetro-normative guy’s nightmare requiring declarations of total commitment. Amy Adam’s plays a ‘kooky’ best friend with frizzy hair who makes hilariously bad documentaries (and seems unaware she is ripping off Andy Warhol’s Sleep). In an early scene Twombly connects to a woman for anonymous phone sex, and she turns out to be crazy too! One could counter that Twombly is not the most attractive or sympathetic figure, but he is the focus of the entire film, and in fact his nerdy, slightly Chaplin-esque character (the later perhaps an effect of Phoenix’s strange wardrobe of too short clothes) could as easily be seen as hipster cool.

Most harmfully, at 126 minutes the film was for me, incredibly boring. Jonze hits a steady mid tempo rhythm from the start and then stays in that groove like a metronome for two hours. I never cared for Twombly, I never related to Samantha as a true character (if the script was so great as some have claimed it to be, would it have needed such a conventionally ‘sexy’ voice? In fact the entire part was originally recorded by Samantha Morton, but rejected in the editing stage). I also found the relationship creepy in a way that the film tries its best to obfuscate. Essentially this is a movie about a guy committing a digital version of the sin of Onan, but too dishonest to admit it. It crucially cuts to black in a key scene to hide this reality (you may not notice if like me your toes were curling in embarrassment at this point).

Of course the film looks great, and it is for the most part well performed (although Chris Pratt’s tiny role is pretty superfluous) but there is a danger that Jonze has become a victim of his own success. His films so influential, in look and style that some of his signatures are beginning to feel somewhat second hand. A case in point being Her’s dreadful faux Arcade Fire soundtrack, which rather shockingly turns out to actually be Arcade Fire. It’s time really time to retire the indie-schmindy rock score for a little while I think.

One final point, one must also must view as suspect any version of the future that thinks Simon Cowell’s trousers are to become a major fashion trend.

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