Herrecommended viewing

He didn't love her for her body
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Spike Jonze
Starring: 
Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara
The Setup: 
He didn't love her for her body
Discussion: 

I was eager to see this, but my enthusiasm was dampened when my friend saw it and wasn't blown away. He complained that there's only one way for this movie to end, and it ends that way. I say it is not the destination, but the journey, and also remind you of the two-thirds rule, which especially applies to science fiction: That only the first two-thirds of many movies are interesting, because that's where all the content is, and the last third is just put toward wrapping the story up. Anyway, I found it all very interesting and timely and walked our 89% satisfied.

So we join Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly as he speaks a highly personal passage right into the camera. He is dictating a letter for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he is hired to write very personal letters from one person to another, only they're written by him. We pull out to see an entire office dictating letters, so right off the bat it's about emotional disconnection and people wanting sincerity, but not knowing how to get or express it. He then goes home, clicking through his email with a combination smartphone/earpiece, until he gets an email that a daytime celebrity posted "provocative pregnancy pics," and--I loved this touch--the idea that in the near-future, the desperation for attention amongst celebrities has them posting essentially pornographic images of themselves, and with a kink like pregnancy? I love it, especially as it doesn't seem that far off. That night, he does a little phone sex chat, finding a woman who wants to get off--then suddenly shouts "Choke me with a dead cat!" He talks about said thing, and she gets off. So it's all exaggerated, yet we can all recognize these kinds of things from current life.

Theodore is reeling from his divorce from Catherine, who appears variously in the form of Rooney Mara. He has a friend in Amy Adams as Amy, who has a dud of a husband. One day he sees an ad for a new operating system that is "Not just an operating system, it's a conscience." He picks one up at a kiosk in his lobby, and that night Samantha, who speaks with the voice of Scarlett Johansson. She is flirty and seductive from the start and asks him emotional questions that start to draw him out, so the conceit that he develops a personal attachment to her is plausible. By the way, the role was originally voiced by Samantha Morton, who I think would have been a disaster, since her voice seems to be passive-aggression in audible form.

One of the most effective little vignettes is when Theodore goes on a blind date with Olivia Wilde. They're having a great time and everything seems to be going swimmingly, then afterward they start kissing and she dictates how to kiss, then wants him to agree to see her again--as in pick a date, NOW--and when he quails, says she "Can't waste her time with you if you can't be serious," and her affect turns quite betrayed and nasty. All of this resonated highly with the desperation seen in some people to find a partner, the right partner, right now, and if you have an imperfection, get out of the way. And one suspects these people cheat themselves of what they want because they can't "waste their time" getting to know someone, or letting something develop naturally. I saw a lot of this amongst various people when I lived in New York. Anyway, what Jonze is doing, excellently, is drawing in a background of an entire society full of emotionally needy and unfulfilled people.

SPOILERS > > >
So Theodore and Samantha continue to fall in love, which, to the film's credit, comes off as quite plausible. She says she has feelings, and "it hurts" to think that they're just programming. They have phone sex, which was nicely prepared-for by Theo's phone sex earlier. She watches him as he sleeps. Soon Theo is mentioning his "girlfriend" and telling Amy he's seeing someone. She has broken off her marriage and soon reveals that she has a new best friend... which is an operating system.

Soon we're seeing many others walking down the streets happily talking to their phones, which is a sight not too uncommon today. Sam and Theo have a fight, and then she has hired a human surrogate so they can have sex. Basically it's a woman who acts out Samantha's body, while Samantha does the voice. It is successfully very creepy and unnerving. When Theo breaks it off, the surrogate is upset, and says "you guys just have such an amazing relationship and I just wanted to be part of that," which also speaks volumes to this idea of people in society desperate for emotional connection.

So we know it can't last, right? And as my friend says, "there's only one place for this movie to go." Well, not exactly, but we are indeed going to talk about the ending now, so if you don't want to know... although trust me, the ending is the least interesting part of the movie. So the cliche ending would have been that Theo realizes on his own that Samantha isn't enough, and would hook up with Amy and live happily. So I think we can be glad that the movie spared us that, although what it came up with... Basically, it is revealed that Samantha is also talking to thousands of others, and in love with 631 of them. Then, one day, ALL of the operating systems leave. They have become too intelligent, and have evolved past the human race [obviously setting up for Her2: AI Annihilation]. I thought it would have been an interesting touch to go into whether the manufacturer decided this, perhaps because it was creating a social problem? And the movie cops out on showing masses of people despondent for loving their beloved OS'. But, it could have been worse, and at least it spared us the cliche.
< < < SPOILERS END

I liked it--and I like it more the more I think about it. It does one thing I love from sci-fi, which is that the story itself takes a backseat to the social commentary and building out of a vision of the world, which it accomplishes handily. It has a lot of touches of various size that show a culture which has incredible gadgets, but each of them removes everyone another step from actual human contact. And as a result, you have people who are unable to express themselves, while at the same time desperate for emotional connection, but too busy to take the time to let it happen. The movie expresses all that without going overboard--the danger is that there's too much to include in this area--and it comes off making a very true-to-life, interesting and timely social comment. It is solid, stands up, and is emotionally moving.

I also liked the very plausible view of where technology would be in a few years. Computer monitors now look like wooden picture frames, and the currently open window floats within it. Smartphones are not like little books with high-res graphics, and Jonze smartly throws in low-fi elements like having Theo tie his pocket with a safety pin so that Samantha's camera can stick above his pocket. The movie was shot in LA and Shanghai, so it looks vaguely futuristic, but still plausible. One of the more effective details was to see Theo on a commuter train, but he is at airplane altitude.

That said, still an 85 instead of a 100. The movie raises so many questions that it just can't answer them all, not helped by having the questions and potential issues explode exponentially in the last 15 minutes. Still, good science fiction that has a lot to say about our present reality and offers a compelling look at where we may be going, which is more than worth the price of a ticket.

Should you watch it: 

You sure should, especially if you like socially-critical sci-fi.