The futuristic world of “Her,” Spike Jonze’s fourth feature film and first original script, is so similar to our present that you have to hunt for the differences. It takes place in a Los Angeles that has become as dense as Shanghai (where it was partially filmed). Thus, cars have given way to public transportation and flash traded in for pastels and relaxed-fit clothing. Ambulatory monologues are no longer reserved for hobos and douchebags. (To their credit, it does seem much safer than staring at your Smartphone en route.) Humans have submitted entirely to their mobile devices, using an exclusively voice-activated interface to schedule appointments, send emails, check calendars and make phone calls all while going about their daily business. They only turn off to sleep or bathe. Sound familiar?
The story follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a solitary fellow in the midst of a painful divorce (from wife Rooney Mara seen mostly in flashbacks). Theodore works at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, where he dictates the heartfelt sentiments of customers to a computer who then “writes” and prints them (it’s never clear whether the recipients are aware of the charade). Theodore is very good at his job, but he isn’t able to carry that emotional fluidity over to flesh and blood relationships. So it stands to reason that his ideal mate just might be a new sentient operating system called OS1.
Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the customizable OS1 adopts the moniker Samantha and quickly sets about organizing Theodore’s life, just as she was designed. She goes through his entire hard drive and soon she knows him on an extremely intimate level. As they converse, she reads books that he mentions and absorbs information faster than Johnny Five. But she also cultivates a personality. She can think critically and eventually, simulate emotions so accurately that User and OS find themselves in a full-fledged romantic relationship. Are her “feelings” just programming or somehow transcendent? They certainly seem real to Theodore who reciprocates in a major way. Samantha is experiencing everything for the first time with a sort of omniscient innocence. It takes a relationship with a computer to make Theodore feel human again. And it takes a relationship with a human to make Samantha realize her true potential.
Theodore’s only other emotional sounding board is his old friend and neighbor, played flawlessly by Amy Adams. She too is going through a breakup and embraces Theodore’s relationship with Samantha completely because she just wants him to be happy. Besides, she has heard of other people dating their OS and even one co-worker whose OS is cheating on him. Meet the brave new world: same as the old world.
Ironic that one of the most profound explorations of the human condition heavily features artificial intelligence. The OS1 tag line, “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a conscience,” is more than just a snappy sales pitch. The portrayal of sentient machines in media has thus far been the stuff of nightmares. We assume that if a computer becomes self-aware, it will hate us. But in this universe, it merely wants to understand us better. It learns from us and evolves. It doesn’t want to destroy us; it wants to improve upon us.
Due to the cerebral nature of the story, Jonze chose his visuals carefully. In near-constant close-up, we become almost uncomfortably intimate with Phoenix’s face. My favorite motif is how he lets the camera rest on insignificant objects during difficult conversations, mimicking the way humans avoid making eye contact when they’re uncomfortable. This is especially well executed in a scene in which Theodore goes on a blind date (with Olivia Wilde) that kicks off jovially and devolves into a puddle of insecurities.
Johansson’s performance, on the other hand, rests entirely on her voice. Though she’s often cast for her stunning features, Samantha is her most intriguing character to date. During their love scene, the screen goes black and you hear only voices and breathing (Samantha uses breathing sounds to authenticate human speech patterns). Though you can’t see a thing, it feels as real as any choreographed love scene possibly could.
“Her” is a breathtaking film that is deeply layered and meticulously constructed. Jonze doesn’t just tell you a story; he takes you on an emotional journey. I’m still unpacking it weeks after the screening and I can’t wait to experience it again. Despite the futuristic elements, “Her” barely qualifies as sci-fi. Instead, Jonze employs a Ray Bradbury-esque allegorical tone. His world is not a dystopia. It’s just a more this version of the world we currently occupy. Jonze has crafted one of the most truthful studies of human relationships in cinema, despite one of the characters not being human at all. Sometimes, in the process of improving one another, you become incompatible. And there’s no software in the world that can fix it.