Spike Jonze doesn't waste any time introducing us to the technology at the center of Her. "An operating system that can mimic human sentience?" a dangerously lonely Joaquin Phoenix wonders after catching glimpse of an ad in a transit station. "Don't mind if I do!" (He doesn't actually say that, don't worry.) But by the time we're meant to believe that such a world can seamlessly integrate characters like Scarlett Johansson's automated voice Samantha into the lives of living, breathing men and women like Phoenix's Theodore, we're already established residents of this arresting, icy, quivering world the filmmaker has built. We meet Theodore midway through his recitation of a "handwritten letter" he penned on behalf of a woman to her husband of many years. That's his job — tapping into his own unique sensititivies to play ghostwriter for people hoping to adorn their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, and children with personal notes of personal affection. Theodore is no independent contractor; he's part of a thriving company, and we almost get the feeling that the folks on the receiving end of these letters are in the know. Before we ever encounter Samantha, we're embedded in the central conceit of the movie: emotional surrogacy is an industry on the rise.
What makes Jonze's world so palatable is that, beneath its marvelously eerie aesthetic, this idea is barely science-fiction. Theodore, humbled and scarred by a recent divorce from lifelong love Catherine (Rooney Mara, who contrasts Johansson by giving a performance that, for a large sum of the movie, is all body and no voice), accesses the will to go on through interractions with video game characters and phone-sex hotlines. But the ante is upped with Samantha, the self-named operating system that Theodore purchases to stave off loneliness, deeming choice a far less contorting one than spending time with old pals like Amy (Amy Adams)... at first.
Samantha evolves rather quickly from an articulate Siri into a curious companion, who is fed and engaged by Theodore just as much as she feeds and engages him. Jonze paces his construction of what, exactly, Samantha is so carefully that we won't even catch the individual steps in her change — along with Theodore, we slowly grow more and more enamored and mystified by his computer/assistant/friend/lover before we can recognize that we're dealing with a different being altogether from the one we met at that inceptive self-aware "H-hello?" But Jonze lays tremendous groundwork to let us know this story is all for something: all the while, as the attractions build and the hearts beat faster for Samantha, we foster an unmistakable sense of doom. We can't help but dread the very same perils that instituted one infamous admission: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
But Jonze's sci-fi constructs are so cohesively intertwined with his love story that our dread doesn't exactly translate to an anticipation of HAL's hostile takeover. Her wedges us so tightly between Theodore and Samantha that our fears of the inevitable clash between man and machine apprehend a smaller, more intimate ruin. As Samantha's growth become more surprising and challenging to Theodore, to herself, and to us, the omens build for each.
And although all three parties know better, we cannot help but affix ourselves to the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha, and to the possibility that we're building toward something supreme. A good faction of this is due to the unbelievable performances of Phoenix — representing the cautious excitement that we all know so painfully well — and Johansson, who twists her disembodied voice so empathetically that we find ourselves, like Theodore, forgetting that we have yet to actually meet her. The one castigation that we can attach to the casting of Johansson is that such a recognizable face will, inevitably, work its way into our heads when we're listening to her performance. It almost feels like a cheat, although we can guarantee that a performance this good would render a figure just as vivid even if delivered by an unknown.
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In this way, Her is as effective a comment on the healthiest human relationships as it is on those that rope in third parties — be they of the living, automated, or greeting card variety. In fact, the movie has so many things to say that it occasionally steps on its own feet, opening up ideas so grand (and coloring them so brightly) that it sometimes has trouble capping them coherently. Admittedly, if Spike Jonze had an answer to some of the questions he's asking here, he'd probably be suspected of himself being a super-intelligent computer. But in telling the story of a man struggling to understand what it means to be in love, to an operating system or not, Jonze invites us to dissect all of the manic and trying and wonderful and terrifying and incomprehensible elements therein. Just like Samantha, Her doesn't always know what to do with all of its brilliance. But that might be part of why we're so crazy over the both of them.
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December 14, 2011 12:53pm EST
Let’s put the cards on the table: I have not read Steig Larsson’s best-selling “Millennium Trilogy” and therefore cannot comment on whether or not Columbia Pictures’ big-budget (American) adaptation of its first novel is a spot-on transfer of the shocking story or if Rooney Mara has lived up to the punk-goth-genius of an anti-heroine he created. This review is about director David Fincher’s craft and the dream cast he has assembled to make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo one of the most brutal and engrossing films of 2011.
Right from lustrous sexy title sequence evoking torturous S&M imagery to the ultra-cool Karen O/Trent Reznor rendition of Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” the Oscar-nominated filmmaker plunges his audience into a very specific experience. This is not to say that the story itself is notably inventive; Dragon Tattoo is more or less a standard serial killer thriller wherein a pair of investigators attempts to solve a decades-old murder that has ties to other gruesome mysteries and a wealthy Swedish family. It’s the sinister atmosphere and tone he cultivates using color music and lighting that makes this tale so unique and highly watchable in spite of the terrible events that occur throughout.
Perhaps most compelling though is its mixed bag of characters from different walks of life including Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) a recently disgraced financial journalist in need of an assignment Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) a yuppie-ish corporate tycoon charged with running the family business started by his uncle Henrik (Christopher Plummer) and Lisbeth Salander (Mara) the alpha-outsider and titular character of this eerie epic. All are emotionally scarred and the actors charged with portraying them go the darkest corners of their own souls to make them their own. Mara in particular must be praised for her ghoulish and extreme embodiment of Salander who suffers physical and emotional torment unlike anything we’ve seen in cinema this year. This more than her scene-stealing presence in Fincher’s The Social Network is no doubt her star-making turn; expect to see her name on a marquee soon. Though she and Craig at times struggle with the Swedish diction (the latter’s native British accent slips through more times than I can count) they more than make up for it with their physical personifications facial expressions etc. Yet it’s Skarsgard who is most impressive as the younger Vanger (he’s of Swedish descent) and delivers a stunning and chilling performance that will rival Mara’s in defining this film in years to come.
Still this is a Fincher film through and through and I cannot think of source material better suited for the maker of Se7en and Zodiac than this disturbing chronicle. Visually he’s given the opportunity to create damp decaying interiors familiar to fans of his work but contrasts them with beautifully filmed exteriors including some terrifying whiteout conditions that are sure to lower your body temperature. In terms of form he and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall effectively lay out dual character arcs (that of Salander and Blomkvist) that run parallel but connect in uncanny ways until their eventual convergence resulting in a highly literary feel. Both Baxter and Wall won Oscars for cutting The Social Network and I’m afraid that their penchant for quick transitions between shots has a decreasing effect on the terror; for a film that so closely treads the line between horror-thriller I felt that letting certain shots play out a bit longer could’ve had more dreadful results.
Still in no way I am saying that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t come with its share of nail-biting suspense. Fincher takes tense situations to the next level using unconventional camera angles and Reznor’s unnerving score making many sequences in the movie hard to watch. It’s a tiring but entertaining task; one that is a pleasure and pain to endure but the auteur’s masterful methods are quite magical even when being used to tell a story as menacing as this one.
There’s nothing else playing at the multiplex this season that’s quite like it and should you choose to view it you’ll carry its shocks with you for days after.