Her (2013) is a favorite film of mine. It deals with the often-told theme of man versus technology, and addresses the worrisome developments of estrangement and loneliness that come out of our usage of technology; yet it sidesteps almost every imaginable stereotype, cliche and over-used narrative device and reaches a point where we are both moved and enlightened by what the film relates to us.
Too often these cautionary tales about technology end on a single message that oversimplifies everything. Too quote South Park’s mr. Garrison,”Technology is bad, mmkay… and natural things are good mmkay…’ I think the last time I felt enlightened by that simple message was when I was 10 years old and secretly watched Terminator 2 (1991).
So when I saw Her and discovered its tale of an honest, adult romance between a person and an operating system, I was astonished about it’s original approach. It tells its story of romance and heartbreak with such openness and curiosity that its easy for the viewer to join Theodore in his growing love for the digital Samantha. And even if you cannot fully understand falling in love with an artificial intelligence, you are at least intrigued by what you see. This surreal lovestory felt more real than I guess 90% of the romantic movies which are released each year.
The colors of HER
Besides the original idea at the center of the film, one of the things that really hooked me on the movie was its cinematography. Courtesy of semi-dutch (cue a small amount of chauvinistic pride here) cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema Her is shot as a wonderland of perfectly balanced colors, lights and compositions. It’s filled with muted red tones and soft and diffuse lightning giving it a feeling of drifting through a gently summer dream.
It’s pastel-tones and romantic approach often reminded me of Lance Acord’s work in Lost in Translation (2003), even though that movie was shot on 16mm film and Her is shot digitally on the Arri Alexa camera. Both films nevertheless show great use of soft colors and lightning, providing them with a beautiful dreamlike and romantic aesthetic. The slightly more ‘perfect’ and sharp image Her possesses because of its digital nature nicely underscores its more futuristic setting and themes.
I’ve read an interview with van Hoytema where he talks about how he desired to eliminate the colour blue from the movie because blue is such an over-used color in science fiction and technology-centered movies. Eliminating blue, and thereby focusing on the red, yellow and green tones avoided the familiar futuristic feel of cool color-tones and made the whole movie feel warmer, more grounded and inviting.
I love this decision to push back the blues. Because of the focus on warm colors Her, at times, almost feels like a modern-styled Amélie (2001), with a comparatively less saturated color palette. Nothing feels especially cold, distant or uninviting in the movie and that really enhances the romantic atmosphere. I guess when you have to tell a lovestory focused on a visually non-existing artificial character, its good to maybe lean towards the more familiar romantic cinematic techniques and push back against the strangeness of the plot. In this context warm colors, soft lightning and dreamy atmosphere feel less as a cliché than they would do in a standard romantic movie about a guy and a girl falling in love. Here they feel original.
Theodore and the City
A second stylistic aspect that really resonated with me was the way director Spike Jonze chose to constantly relate the lonesome Theodore to the bustling metropolis he lives in. Here, again, I felt similarities with Lost in Translation. As in that film, we often see a wandering solitary figure moving through a vibrant and vivid city, while he/she never really connects with that vibrant energy. There is this tension between the external energy and internal quiet that really underscores the emotions of the main characters, both Theodore in Her and Charlotte in Lost in Translation.
But it has another layer to it in Her. During many of Theodore’s conversations with Samantha we see him in his bedroom, which is decorated with large windows through which we see the city. Not only does this view enhance Theodore’s loneliness in our eyes, it connects him to an energy that feels very alive yet not actually human, ie. The City. In a way, that cityscape you see behind Theodore becomes the visual representation of the invisible Samantha. Especially when Samantha leaves Theodore at the end of the film and disappears into the ether with all the other A.I.’s the city seems to become a visual signifier of her. The film tellingly ends with Theodore and his friend looking out over the city at dawn and bittersweetly come together after the A.I.’s are gone.
Because of it’s science fiction trappings Her thus injects the contrast between the individual and the city with another level of meaning, which in turn really enhances the emotional reaction I had to these shots. Therefore my pick for my favorite shot in Her is this one:
The shot shows Theodore against the backdrop of the city as he starts talking to Samantha. Notice also how the lines of the windows enhance the shot with their diagonal lines, which seem to push out into the city, in a way inviting Theodore out into the larger world. Though we never actually see any resemblance of Samantha throughout the film in this shot it feels as if Theodore and Samantha (in the guise of the city) are both within the frame and connecting to each other. Further enhancing this effect is the fact that the night doesn’t feel dark or scary or empty, but rather soft and illuminated, maybe even more so than the inside of his apartment.
In a movie filled with color, this particular shot almost feels black and white, but considering the emotional state of Theodore at this point in the movie (quite depressed), I understand its desaturated look, and appreciate it. There is this quiet night-time quality to it, that comes across beautifully.