With “Her,” Spike Jonze Restores ‘Us’

While talking to a friend over gchat this past Friday, something unexpected happened: the Google service stopped working. Upon being notified that I was “no longer signed in to chat,” I refreshed the page to speed up the process, as any experienced Internet user would. But a new page appeared upon the refresh, a page stating that this particular Google service was unavailable.

Prompted by the message, I did what any web-dependent humanoid would: I freaked the f___ out.

This service interruption did not only preclude passing the time by talking to friends, but it also meant that I wouldn’t be able to check my emails. Of course, neither issue is catastrophic. After all, 90% of the emails I receive are attempts to sell me discounted Ben Sherman bags, cheap flights to Machu Picchu, or baby clothes (seriously, Gap, I specified which promos I wanted to see WEEKS ago).

her_xxlgHowever, this practical view of the situation did not stop me from going into a contained panic over being cut off from the digital world in which most of us have grown comfortable over the past 2 decades. And in the Oscar-buzzing film Her, writer/director Spike Jonze depicts this reliance on technology in a future that is both everywhere and nowhere, using the film’s setting to reflect the connective and divisive properties that technology demonstrates, ultimately confirming that our undeniable place is with each other.

The protagonist, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), reinvigorates his once melancholy post-divorce life by forming a relationship with his artificially intelligent operating system (voice of Scarlett Johansson). Generally, for both the audience and the world in which the film is set, the dynamic between Theodore and Samantha does not appear as creepy as it may have 20 years ago, when the notion of being leashed to our computers was still in its infancy. But today, our comfort with how integral computers have become in our everyday lives makes it easier to accept both the futuristic environment as well as the admittedly bizarre intimacy that Theodore and Samantha eventually share.

Jonze, once known for directing provocative music videos, continues to show how far he has come as a journeyman storyteller that melds fantastical concepts and emotions with which we can’t help but identify. Her looks like the sweet spot of that combination for which Jonze began to search with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. And that sweet spot also includes understated but fantastical set design and tongue-in-cheek costuming that make light of the power of trends despite how ridiculous they may seem in retrospect (or prospect, in this case).

The optimistic message of the film, though, proves more gripping than the visuals and the novelty of the concept. Jonze communicates that although the course of human evolution has led to relying on computers, the machines we create restore our instinct for social intimacy despite our attempts to dismiss them. The assertion that even when technology is at its most advanced, it will only return us to ourselves renews faith in humanity that many fear is in doubt because of how technology appears to isolate. So long as we are on this planet together, even when we are feeling isolated (by choice or otherwise), all signs will inevitably direct us back to each other.

During my Gmail freak-out, I reestablished contact with my friend, who had also experience the same online hiccup, via text messaging. And had text messaging somehow crashed, I would have called her. And if calling her didn’t work, I would have resorted to more Luddite methods to reach her, as I think we all would under those circumstances.

So as a work of art, Her illustrates a reality that reaffirms our humanity despite how much our world changes on the surface. Jonze wraps an arm around us with this film, allaying any fears that our world is slipping away from us, assuring viewers that the need to connect on a personal level will never be eliminated, no matter how much we try to guard ourselves from the emotional risks of doing so.

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