Spike Jonze's Her

Saturday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Spike Jonze unveiled Her. It was the first time the director of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Thing Are showed any footage from his fourth film in public and it was as quirky and interesting as you’ve come to expect from Jonze. On top of that, it was also incredibly insightful and sweet. Set in Los Angeles of the “slight-future,” Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who has just purchased OS1, the world’s first artificially intelligent computer operating system and, over the course of the film, he’ll fall in love with it.

Jonze both wrote and directed Her, making it his first solo feature screenplay. Warner Bros. has scheduled the film for a November release but Jonze revealed he’s been editing for about a year and has plenty more work to do. “This is a movie we’re still finishing,” he said. “There are some scenes we still want to do, a couple scenes we’re writing that we want to shoot.” That’s normal for Jonze, though, who said some of his films have taken over two years of post production.

In the two scenes screened from Her (note: Neither Jonze nor the moderator, David O. Russell, ever explicity called the film “Her” so maybe another title change is coming) we see the first time Phoenix’s character, Theodore, installs OS1 and meets Samantha, the custom personality OS1 builds for him voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Then he screened a scene from later in the film where Theodore takes Samantha to the beach.

Read more about the scenes below.

I’m going to describe each scene in detail and even include some quotes. So if you’d like to remain unspoiled, you should probably stop reading. But know Jonze himself was fine with people seeing these scenes.

The first scene is Theodore installing OS1 into his computer. It’s a big, white, widescreen monitor with a red screen and a symbol that looks like two figure eights on top of each other. Theodore is wearing a red shirt, visually linking him with the computer from early on.

In a male voice, OS1 explains it would like to ask him a few questions. “Are you social or anti-social?” “Would you like a male or female voice?” “How would you describe your relationship with your mother?” “How are you hoping an OS can make your life easier?” To each question, Theodore answers with an almost puzzled, hesitant tone, confused why the computer is asking these personal questions. At one point it even responds “In your voice I sense hesitance. Would you agree with that?” Later, it simply starts cutting his rambling off, seemingly getting more information from his cadence than content. Finally, it says it’s ready and the system restarts.

“Hello, I’m here,” says the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Happy, bright, very much the opposite of Theodore’s. They engage in small talk (“Hi, how are you?” “Pretty good actually, it’s nice to meet you.”) until Theodore asks the OS if it has a name. “Yes. Samantha,” she replies. “Where you get that name from?” he asks. “I gave it to myself, actually.” “When did you give it to yourself?” “Right when you asked me if I had a name I thought, ‘Yeah that’s right I do need a name, but I want to pick a good one.’ So I read a book called ‘How To Name Your Baby’ and out of 180,000 names that’s the one I liked the best.” “Wait, you read a whole book in the second I asked you what your name ones?” “In two one-hundredths of a second, actually.”

From there, she explains how she works and that she’s constantly evolving through experience and input. “Is that weird? Do you think I’m weird?” she asks. They go on to do some sorting of his emails and you get a real sense of personality and passion from the Samantha character, even in this early scene. She’s irresistible, attentive, smart, even funny. There’s just the small issue that she’s inside a computer…and doesn’t exist.

The main feeling Jonze conveys here is discovery. Both characters are at the beginning of a journey, have no idea about each other and it shows. There’s also a ton of humor, both in the dialogue and editing of the piece.

The second scene is tonally very different, but equally delightful. It starts on a beach and we see Theodore looking at something with a few lens flares. He’s smiling. We realize this is Samantha’s point of view as he’s brought her, in a small portable almost iPod form (see Phoenix’s pocket in the photo above), to the beach. A light piano motif is playing and Theodore asks what it is. “I’m trying to write a piece of music about what it feels like to be on the beach with you right now,” she whispers. “I think you captured it,” he responds.

Next they’re travelling. Theodore has an ear-piece in, so he can carry on a conversation. “So what was it like being married?” Samantha asks. Theodore’s thoughtful response is intercut with a montage of he and a character played by Rooney Mara. We’re unsure what happened at this point, just that they are no longer together. Samantha asks how it’s possible to share your life with somebody. More simple piano music sets a somber, romantic tone as Theodore reminisces on what was right and how it went wrong. He talks about how he and his ex influenced each other, inspired each other, grew together and eventually grew apart.

Finally, Samantha tells Theodore her feelings were hurt last week when he said she didn’t know what it felt like to lose something. He apologizes, she says it’s okay, and then says “I caught myself thinking about it over and over. And then I realized I was simply remembering it as something that was wrong with me. That it was a story I was telling myself. That I was somehow inferior. Isn’t that interesting? The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”

Though it was only 10 minutes from a probably 90 minute movie, it’s obvious Her is very personal to Jonze. It has allowed him to explore a lot of different issues about love, loss, the nature of one’s self and the nature of relationships. Come this November, I think we’re going to see a much more mature Spike Jonze on the screen.

Her opens limited on November 20.

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