We’re getting used to Siri, aren’t we? Siri (and Google Now) give us information, help us sort through our contacts and compose messages, and even tell a few jokes. Big deal. These personal assistants can’t feel; can’t empathize, can’t want, can’t love. What if the next generation of operating systems could?
In the near future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com where he finds the words to express what others cannot in personal letters written in the customer’s handwriting and signed with their name. It’s not as deplorable as it sounds – couples embrace the service, using it as a cipher for unspoken feelings.
Theodore is living in downtown Los Angeles in the near future – a time and place that looks similar to today but with a few subtle changes. The design on a global level is much more trendy. Vibrant pastels and Ikea-inspired furniture fill every space. Men wear their pants peculiarly high, and everyone, every person, has a computer device in their ear that handles their phone calls, reads their emails, and helps them navigate the world. Man’s intelligent use (and dependence) on technology has reached new heights, but it isn’t used as a crutch. Business and socializing is still done face-to-face; it’s just accelerated and improved by the technology. “Play a melancholy song,” Theodore says. A guitar strums in his ear. He frowns. “Play a different melancholy song.”
Outside of the dozens of romances he inspires and advances every day at work, Theodore has no love of his own to speak of. In the midst of a divorce with his wife (Rooney Mara), he is mostly alone in the world before he hears about OS 1 – a cutting edge artificially intelligent operating system that promises to find a personal connection with its user based on personality preferences. Theodore boots up the OS to his home computer and after a short psychological profiling process is greeted by the sultry and friendly voice of Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha has no body or face – she’s not human, but she’s designed to behave like one. She speaks with a shortness of breath (as if she was actually breathing), and expresses complex emotions such as excitement, boredom, and eagerness to discover the world. Are these emotions real or simply a programmed interaction? Theodore hangs out with his friendly neighbor (another prime performance by Amy Adams), and even goes on a date with a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde), but finds himself drawn most by Samantha. Quietly, almost accidentally, they begin to fall in love.
The great feat of “Her,” the thing that makes it one of the year’s most remarkable films, is that it dares to legitimize its unlikely plot. By sticking its neck out there and filling the roles with brilliant actors, “Her” manages to transport us to this light, quirky world for a great offering of cinematic escapism. It’s sparking with the electric originality of a filmmaker determined to make a work of transcendent power. Director Spike Jonze is known for his frequent collaborations with the highly regarded writer Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Adaptation”), but with “Her” he stepped out on his own and wrote the film himself. Clearly Kaufman has rubbed off on Jonze in all the right ways; “Her” is as bizarre and otherworldly as “Being John Malkovich,” and as visually appetizing as “Where the Wild Things Are,” and yet distinctly its own picture thanks to performances of a magnetic caliber. The disturbing memory of Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in 2012’s “The Master” is virtually erased the second Phoenix appears onscreen in “Her.” Looking physically years younger, and mentally released of the anguish of his most recent roles, it’s a drawing sight to see Phoenix at his most natural here.
It doesn’t take long to come to the thought: “If Samantha is a voiceover-only performance, why does she need to be played by someone considered one of the most beautiful women in the industry?” While some part of that image of beauty probably helps the film, Johansson is ultimately the perfect choice for VO. She has a crucial part in the film, responsible for not just being a compelling love interest but convincing us that falling in love with a computer is something that Theodore could really do, that WE could really do. One of the best things about “Her” is that the man-meets-machine romance is actually quite ordinary. As they fall deeper in love, they spend more time together. They go on daytrips and socialize with Theodore’s friends. When they’re alone together we’re viewing from inside Theodore’s head – alive, in love, dazzled by Samantha’s affectionate voice in his earpiece. Only when the camera steps out of his dreamlike headspace can we see objectively images like Theodore on a crowded beach, caught up in a conversation with Samantha but physically alone in the real world.
Jonze wonders whether love needs to be based on something physical – being able to hold someone, or look into their eyes – or whether a deeper love is built on the foundation of strong intellectual attraction. Was Theodore looking for a companion when he heard about the personalized operating system, or simply a way to organize his e-mails and files? How can their relationship be real when Samantha is only an omniscient computer programmed to identify with major human constructs such as gender, friendship, and conversation? How does an operating system’s view of love differ from the human perspective?
“Her” is full of satisfying questions to ask. It’s a beautiful story with so many impressive attributes – an instrumental score by Arcade Fire, fantastic cinematography, and a living, breathing world for it all to take place in. Jonze’s film is an extraordinary success, a precise and well-timed challenge of romance in the modern age. If we can fall in love through technology, why not with it?
U.S. Wide Release: January 10th, 2014 | U.K. Wide Release: February 14th, 2014
2 hr. 6 min.