It’s not as hard to imagine artificial intelligence becoming a reality as it was 10 or 20 years ago. So even though “Her” is just a riff on the “robot who learns to love” plot from movies as far back as arguable “Pinocchio,” writer/director Spike Jonze makes this futuristic concept much more accessible and capable of generating a relevant dialogue.
More importantly, “Her” doesn’t waste its time debating whether a human and a machine can have a romantic connection; rather, it accepts this possibility and moves on to bigger themes, exploring the ambiguity of love through this most complicated lens.
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is an especially lonely man who writes other people’s letters for them for a living. Less than a year ago he split from his wife (Rooney Mara) and has been unable to fully close that chapter of his life. Longing for connection, he purchases a new operating system for his phone that acts as an artificially intelligent personal assistant, one customized to meet his needs that learns more and more through interaction with him. Naturally, Theodore grows close with “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), in part because she understands him, but also because she shows a curiosity and zest for the world.
Jonze nails the toughest challenge this story saddles him with: making Theodore and Samantha’s relationship feel tangible on screen and in our minds. Johansson is simply perfect voice casting; between her performance and Jonze’s dialogue, she manages to convey that Samantha is not only a believable character, but also one who is unmistakably an artificially intelligent digital assistant. We sense and perceive the gray area between Samantha feeling like a real person and being a computer rather than seeing her as distinctly one or the other. If we couldn’t, “Her” would completely succumb to plausibility issues.
Of course it’s Phoenix who has to sell it on the screen. Known for taking roles with more fire to them, it’s nice to see Phoenix play a softie and rely on nuance rather than the dramatic physicality characterized by his three Oscar-nominated performances (“The Master,” “Walk the Line” and “Gladiator”). He does superb work making Theodore the kind of lonely character that draws neither complete pity nor total disdain. The way Theodore handles his relationship with Samantha does not cast him as a naive man out of touch with reality, as he carries a healthy skepticism into his new relationship, but he’s definitely a romantic at heart. Phoenix nicely balances both facets of Theodore’s personality, as does the script.
Jonze’s screenplay is the treasure of “Her.” In addition to balancing fantasy and reality in such a poignant way, he creates memorable moments of both comedy and romance while never losing sight of the science-fiction elements that make his film such a stimulating social critique. He also poses mindful questions about the nature of love, using Amy Adams’ character, coincidentally named Amy, as a way to compare and contrast what’s happening with Theodore to “the norm.” But instead of having her call him crazy and challenge him, she engages him in a healthy dialogue about his feelings. In this way, Jonze moves beyond the surface level of the story — the moral or social acceptability of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship — and into the realm of what their romance might be able to teach us about the ever-unquantifiable nature of love. The prominence of Theodore’s failed marriage in the film also artistically elevates “Her” in a similar way.
Jonze’s aesthetic also helps set a unique tone for a film about the future and technology. Although it’s hard to imagine a society in which men tuck their shirts into their pants without wearing belts, Jonze moves distinctly away from the shiny metallics and pristine whites of most Hollywood renderings of the future. He instead opts for a warm, vintage look to this technology-bound society. In doing so, this world feels more natural and ultimately plausible to the audience.
Not every inch of “Her” feels authentic and believable, especially if you start to peel back all its components, but the film isn’t as blatantly illogical and riddled with nonsensical plot holes as a lot of other science-fiction movies. Also, Jonze makes it clear that his film is not interested in the science itself; it is a means with which to explore ideas and concepts — and of course pique our interest.
Rarely do high-concept films speak to a wide audience with as much as ease as “Her,” the most profound film of its kind since “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The reason it works so well because it can be enjoyed at face value as a “what if” glimpse of the future or more deeply as a thesis of sorts on love and relationships. So it might seem like a niche genre film for an indie-loving audience, but “Her” will connect with just about anyone acquainted with contemporary technology.
Written and Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara