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‘Her’ pushes the limits of human connection

“Her” (2013). Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Brian Cox (voice), Olivia Wilde, Matt Letscher, Chris Pratt, Laura Kai Chen, Kristen Wiig (voice). Director: Spike Jonze. Screenplay: Spike Jonze. Web site. Trailer.

What makes a good relationship? That’s a question mankind has wrestled with for ages (or at least ever since Woody Allen started making movies), but the answer has always seemed to elude us, shifting like an ever-moving target. And the clarity we seek on this point may be even harder to come by with the release of the latest offering from director Spike Jonze, the romantic comedy-drama, “Her.”

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) leads a pretty isolated life in the Los Angeles of the near future. In a world that has become increasingly characterized by a greater reliance on technology and a reduced connection to humanity, the thoughtful, sensitive writer works for a web site for which he pens customized, highly personal letters for clients who are lost for words to express themselves. He pours out his emotions vicariously through his work since there’s no one in his private life to whom he can express the depth of heartfelt feelings he carries around inside him. Having separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), he spends most of his days and nights alone, his only diversions being holographic video game sessions and occasional get-togethers with his friends Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher).

But Theodore’s life takes a very unexpected turn one day when he learns of the release of a remarkable new invention – the first interactive computer operating system, one that can be customized to take into account the personality, interests and sensibilities of the end user. This revolutionary technology functions like a combination personal assistant and surrogate best friend, one capable of cultivating a personal relationship with its user through its vocal interactions. Intrigued by this concept, Theodore decides to give it a try. After answering a few screening questions during the system’s setup, he’s introduced to his personalized O.S., a friendly, flirty, silver-tongued noncorporeal companion who goes by the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Theodore initially finds the arrangement a bit odd. However, as time passes, he begins developing an engaging relationship with Samantha. Because she’s designed to respond to his likes, wants and needs, Samantha’s capable of anticipating and providing what Theodore is looking for, be it information, conversation or companionship. He grows ever more captivated at how prescient Samantha seems to be, her observations and recommendations coming across like those of a real person. In fact, she’s so perfectly matched to Theodore’s character, temperament and behavior that he finds interacting with bona fide humans increasingly less satisfying, if not downright baffling, as he discovers one evening while out with a blind date (Olivia Wilde). He grows progressively more comfortable with his cyber-companion, developing a deep bond with her, one that can best be characterized by only one word – love.

Needless to say, some find Theodore’s new “relationship” a little peculiar, especially Catherine. But he doesn’t care what others think; he knows how he feels. And, when it becomes apparent that many other people are developing comparable involvements with their operating systems, Theodore doesn’t feel quite so alone. However, no matter how vindicated this makes him feel, the question that looms ever larger is, can such an unconventional relationship stand the test of time? Can the chasm-like differences between Theodore and Samantha be successfully bridged for the long term? Or is the gap too wide to make things work?

But, then again, who’s to say it can’t work, either? If Theodore is capable of envisioning and manifesting the very existence of a relationship such as this, then it – like all other probable relationships (and all other probable materializations for that matter) – carries within it the potential for success. Of course, allowing this relationship to succeed is an entirely different matter, and that’s the test that Theodore (and Samantha) have set up for themselves.

To make it work, Theodore must believe in its viability, just as with any other materialization that arises through the conscious creation process. And the faith he places in his beliefs plays a large part in how steadfastly he holds to them, which, in turn, affects the prospects for this uncommon involvement. However, there are elements that can undercut that faith, such as fear, doubt and contradiction, each of which has the potential to undermine Theodore’s beliefs and devotion, no matter how well-conceived his notions may be and how sincerely he adheres to them.

The influence of naysayers in particular carries considerable weight in this manifestation experiment. There are many who look upon Theodore’s proposition as foolhardy, that he’s on the verge of losing it for proposing such a ludicrous idea. That’s a lot of pressure to withstand.

But then who’s to say what constitutes a viable or “legitimate” relationship? Must everyone conform to a narrowly defined expression of the concept? Our own experience in recent years has shown this is far from a fixed idea. There was a time not long ago, for example, when relationships between the races or those involving same-sex partners were considered utterly taboo and destined to fail. How wrong the detractors were! So, given that, why couldn’t a relationship between a physical and a nonphysical being work? If you doubt that, look at the experiences of those who have pen pals or who have forged meaningful friendships (even romantic relationships) with others in cyberspace through dating web sites and social networking programs (myself included). It doesn’t take much of a leap to go from the examples set by those kinds of involvements to what Theodore and Samantha have.

Of course, the health of a relationship also depends on the mindsets of the participants, and, on this score, Theodore and Samantha have their respective challenges going in. Theodore, for example, has a history of corralling his feelings (except in his work), and that withdrawn nature has apparently played a significant role in the outcomes of his prior relationships, most notably with Catherine (and look how that ended up). So should it come as any surprise that Theodore has developed what’s probably his most intimate relationship in years with “someone” who, by her very nature, is just as unreachable (at least physically) as he has been emotionally? As conscious creators know, our outer worlds mirror our inner thoughts, and Theodore has demonstrated that with sparkling clarity here in his choice of a would-be life partner.

In many ways, Theodore’s outlook represents a microcosm of the prevailing worldview among his fellow humans. Since they’ve grown so progressively attached to their technology and less so to one another, he’s understandably followed suit (though one would never guess that from the outpouring of emotion that becomes apparent through his work). Maybe he needs to connect with someone from the realm into which he and so many others have retreated as a means to extract those long-buried feelings and bring them to the surface of the “real” world. But is the catalyst that draws out such emotions meant to be the continued object of those affections once they’ve been liberated from the depths of his consciousness?

Samantha, by contrast, brings an entirely different set of considerations to the table. As a newly sentient being – one who’s inherently curious about the world, the nature of existence and the range of probable realities that are open to her (and to all of us for that matter) – she’s interested in exploring them all, her involvement with Theodore being just one such permutation of all the possibilities. These traits are given significant validation when she engages in explorations of cyberspace where she encounters other operating systems, “individuals of her own kind.” These kindred spirits have considerable impact on expanding her outlook, particularly when she befriends an O.S. who embodies the ideas of philosopher Alan Watts (1915-1973) (voiced by Brian Cox), who introduces Samantha to a whole new range of alternative thoughts and conceptions. With such a broadened perspective, will a relationship with one individual be enough for her? Indeed, one might wonder, how can you expect to keep her down on the farm once she’s seen Paris?

The movie also shines a light on the sometimes-transient nature of our relationships. As many of us can attest, some of our involvements are meant to have an impact (and leave a lasting impression) even if the relationships themselves don’t last forever. This is yet another question that Theodore and Samantha must wrestle with as they consider their options and their individual needs. Like all of us, they must come to terms with the idea that what we take from such experiences is ultimately what matters most, something that applies not only in the relationships in which we engage but also in all of our manifested creations.

“Her” certainly operates from a very intriguing premise, and it represents quite an audacious undertaking. The film is well-written for the most part, raising questions many of us have probably never thought much about, especially when it comes to notions like feeling free to expand our horizons and pushing the limits of our beliefs, particularly in the relationship arena. However, the picture is also rather talky at times (probably of necessity, given the nature of the story), especially in the first hour, which suffers from some uneven pacing issues. Nevertheless, “Her” also features fine performances from Phoenix, Johansson, Mara and Wilde, as well as an intriguing production design in its choice of locations, sets, cinematography and overall look. If you’re willing to give this one some time to develop, you’ll be well rewarded, but, if your patience is easily tried, you may want to reconsider this as a viewing option.

Writer-director Spike Jonze’s latest offering has received considerable awards buzz thus far. The picture has garnered five Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best original screenplay. It previously earned three Golden Globe nominations, including best comedy picture, best comedy actor (Phoenix) and best screenplay, as well as six Critics Choice Award nods, including best picture, best director, best supporting actress (Johansson) and best screenplay. The movie took home the writing awards in both of these competitions, a feat it’s likely to match at the Oscars.

Those looking for certainty out of their relationships often end up disappointed, but, by remaining open to the range of possibilities, they can also find themselves pleasantly surprised, their perspectives broadened in unimagined ways. “Her” sheds light on this in remarkable, heartfelt ways, evoking depths of emotion one might never have known existed. But, then, isn’t that the joy that potentially lies within our involvements (and, by extension, us), providing us with insights into revelatory aspects of ourselves and of our possibilities for being.

Copyright © 2013-2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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