Asking someone to design the future must be a tricky proposal. There are a number of considerations -- buildings, vehicles, and of course, your specialty, fashion. Do you borrow from the past and create a retro-chic look? Maybe go high tech/low power-source for a modern steampunk approach? How about creating something sleek and shiny from whole cloth? In a pinch, of course, you can always opt for jumpsuits. As the fashion consultant for Spike Jonze's new film Her, which takes place in an unspecified future, you opted for something subtler: high-waisted pants.
Okay, that's oversimplifying your contribution quite a bit. However, it does speak to Jonze's approach as writer and director. Everything--like those pants--is just different enough to register as slightly beyond our current context. Most of the future is just small, logical extrapolations of what is already familiar: technology is a touch sleeker, transportation is cleaner, and people are even more preoccupied with their mobile devices than they are today. Keeping the future simple is important because Her's premise is a doozy: the sordid love affair between a man and his operating system.
When Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Pheonix) installs the "the world's first artificially intelligent operating system" on his computer, it almost immediately configures itself to use a female voice (Scarlett Johansson's, to be exact), naming itself Samantha. The two start up a professional, if casual relationship. As Samantha performs routine tasks such as reading emails and copy editing his work, Theodore starts to develop real feelings for her. In fact, the blossoming love goes both ways. Although Samantha is quick to point out that she is only doing what her creators programmed her to do, both she and Theodore start to realize that they have a real connection.
Or at least a connection that feels real. In Jonze's future, life is disconnected to the point that people knowingly let others define their existence. Theodore himself works as a writer at Beautiful Handwritten Letters, a service specializing in drafting heartfelt, personal messages sent to husbands and wives, sons and daughters, and all other personal relations. The thing is, the inauthenticity of these seems to be acknowledged by both the senders and recipients. Theodore manages the personal interactions the same way a system utility would organize files and folders. When the personal can be taken out of interpersonal relationships, taking the actual person out isn't much of a stretch.
After all, the same way a strange new fashion becomes normalized over time, so does behaviour. One of the surprising elements in Her is not just the central relationship itself, but people's reaction to it. Theodore's longtime friend Amy (Amy Adams, seemingly relaxed to finally playing an actual person instead of a capital-C Character) similarly finds solace in her operating system, as it helps her through issues of her own. She is delighted and curious, if not a bit jealous, that Theodore and Samantha's relationship has become intimate. Her does not so much ask us to gawk at this strange scenario, but instead draws a map showing how we might get to that point. Only Theodore's soon to be ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) calls him out on the relationship, accusing him of taking the easy path, creating a surrogate that fits his ideal. Jonze isn't preaching through Catherine, though; Samantha isn't quite so easily defined. Like the other newly installed self-aware operating systems, Samantha isn't cognizant of her own potential. As she becomes increasingly more sure of herself, the relationship grows both more human and more confounding to Theodore.
It would be too pat to say that through his relationship with a computer, Theodore realizes that he needs other people. Jonze is thankfully above that. He's curious about what a true connection is--physical, mental, emotional, or something else altogether--and the way it never follows the easy path you expect. He's also interested in solid storytelling with compelling characters, whether they appear onscreen or not. And that's always in fashion.
Liking the cut of your jib,