The sci-fi genre is synonymous with alien invasions, and battles to save the human race from an almighty threat. Tackling this theme from a different angle with Arrival is critically acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve, adapting Story of your Life, a short story written by Ted Chiang. The plot follows linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who is approached by US military officer Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) when twelve extraterrestrial spacecrafts land on Earth sparking worldwide panic. Tasked with communicating with the alien life form alongside theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she must translate their language in order to decipher how and more importantly why they are here.
Fashion icon Tom Ford enjoyed his first foray into filmmaking back in 2009 with A Single Man which was met with critical acclaim and awards glory. He’s back for his second feature with neo-noir thriller Nocturnal Animals, based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. The plot centres around luxuriously successful LA art dealer Susan (Amy Adams) who, despite her extreme wealth, is unhappy with what and who she has become. When she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), she is led to reflect upon her life. Her ex’s bloody tale of violent revenge, which gives the movie its title, plays out as a film within a film, haunting her memories and dredging up her dark past.
Set in the not so distant future, ‘Her’ blends science fiction with romantic-comedy and holds a mirror up to the possibilities of mobile technology. Screwball director Spike Jonze explores themes of love, friendship and artificial intelligence in utopian Los Angeles. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a thirty-something divorcee who makes a living penning love letters for those with an inability to express their feelings, despite lacking confidence with women face-to-face himself. Lonely and raw from his separation from soul mate Catherine (Rooney Mara), he invests in an advanced operating system, who calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) for companionship and to compartmentalise his working and social calendar. As the OS expands its capabilities, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha develops, asking questions of modern-day romance and its requirements, be it technical or otherwise.
Despite being full of ideas and imagination, I struggled to connect with the central character, and felt slightly patronised and preached upon by the heavy topics raised. The ‘looks or personality’ quandary comes into play in an unorthodox manner as although Samantha has no physical presence, essentially ‘living in a computer’ as she puts it, she does have a personality and later has the mood swings and emotions that come with the ups and downs of a relationship. Without giving too much away, there’s a section where Samantha does arrange for a body to take on her persona and this presents an oddly intriguing threesome dynamic. It reminded me a lot of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series which also predicted where technological enhancements would take us, but his effort was more effective and thought provoking due to its darker satirical approach.
I admired the ambition, and the film definitely looks the part, the idyllic location serving as a pleasant and interesting backdrop to Theodore’s story. However nice the aesthetics are, the problem lies in the unnatural conversations with Samantha which were cringe worthy at times, the attempts at humour, for me, missing the mark. This could be down to the fact that Johansson was brought into the project late on. Her voiceover was added in place of the unknown original which had been recorded in sync with Phoenix’s lines. In fairness, the recasting in some respects of Scarlett Johansson was a shrewd move. Because of her iconic good looks, her voice is easy to recognise and identify with, and this helps but I didn’t buy into the bond at all. It all still felt very naff and manufactured.
Joaquin Phoenix is no stranger to a complex lead role, so seemed an inspired choice to take on the introvert, Twombly. Unfortunately, he is outshone by his co-stars, even his computerised girlfriend. Rooney Mara is very impressive once again, in a similar role to her Social Network turn, but this time more assured. I could’ve done with seeing more of her character who represents the grounding reality in a world of dreamy ideals, though she steals the moments she appears in. The stand-out performance is Amy Adams as Theodore’s best friend, Amy. They relate through their desire to express themselves creatively, Theodore through his writing and Amy through documentary filmmaking. They are there for each other through their troubles, and the natural friendship plays out very fluidly.
‘Her’ has no shortage of invention but the outcome has mixed results. The slick cinematography works well with the subject matter, as does the soundtrack but it is let down by its feeble cracks at rom-com humour and sentiment. This creates an incoherent narrative and the film doesn’t appear to know quite what it wants to be, though it has no doubt of its own intelligence. If it had focussed on being an investigative sci-fi flick, I think there’s room for a more in-depth study and more challenging material for the experienced cast to tackle, thus giving itself the opportunity to fulfil its potential.