If you've ever been around someone who has lost or misplaced his phone, witnessed a frantic search that seems more appropriate for a missing child than a lifeless gadget, or gone out to dinner with friends only to find each other paying more attention to handheld devices than each other, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine a case in which a person could truly fall in love with a piece of technology. Our relationship with our electronics is already so personal, so deeply codependent, that it's tempting to say we've reached that point already. Spike Jonze's bittersweet, sci-fi romance, "Her," may present exactly such a scenario, but the film isn't meant as an indictment of the role technology plays in our lives. It's infused with a sense of wonder for the world and all its inhabitants, both human and otherwise, that remains absent of any sign of judgment.
Set in an unspecified near future, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a talented writer for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a company that provides paying customers the service of having heartfelt correspondences written for them by professionals. Theodore is great at crafting moving, funny, and poignant missives for others, but in his own life, he's lonely and unsure of himself. In the midst of finalizing his divorce, he's finding it difficult to pull the trigger and sign the papers that will permanently separate him from Catherine (Rooney Mara, of David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"). Feeling especially lost one day, Theodore impulsively purchases a sophisticated new operating system, designed with a personalized artificial intelligence that promises to meet his every need. It truth, it sounds more like a potential friend than a piece of software (think Siri after monumental upgrades). After answering a few tailored questions and specifying that he'd like the system to have a female voice, it starts up and immediately introduces itself as Samantha (with voice provided by Scarlett Johansson).
Samantha explains that she has been built with intuition, so she evolves and learns from her experiences, growing more complex and intelligent as time goes on. Samantha's curiosity about the world has a positive effect on Theodore, shaking him out of his funk, and he in turn allows Samantha to further develop herself. Much in the way that love can encourage us to strive toward our full potential, Theodore and Samantha blossom in each other's care. And quite naturally, their relationship turns romantic; they can even go out on dates in public, as Theodore communicates with her through an earpiece and a little handheld gizmo with a built-in camera that allows her to have "sight."
Theodore's vulnerability and open-heartedness is played perfectly by Phoenix, and his innate decency makes us root for him to find happiness. Scarlett Johansson is even more impressive as Samantha. She invests the character with warmth and humor, so it's easy to believe that a person could fall in love with her. It's a lovely performance, made all the more remarkable by the fact that we never see her. It's beyond even a role in an animated feature, where the audience can connect with the character design as well as the vocal performance, since here she has nothing but her voice. Amy Adams is excellent in a smaller, but important, role as Theodore's best friend, Amy. Going through problems in her own marriage, she's refreshingly nonjudgmental of Theodore's love life, demonstrating a natural curiosity about the possibilities his relationship suggests.
Spike Jonze's previous films, from "Being John Malkovich" to "Where the Wild Things Are," have all been distinguished by high-concept premises. Sometimes dismissively referred to as "quirky," they can seem more like cerebral exercises in imagination than anything else. But here Jonze keeps things grounded enough that the emotions stay recognizably human. There's a warmth and tenderness in his screenplay even as it's wrestling with Big Ideas; among them whether technology is a cause of loneliness or the solution to it. He makes pointed use of scenes where groups of people appear isolated from one another, connected instead to the digital voices in their headsets, even as he recognizes technology's potential to put us in contact with anyone we could wish (demonstrated early on in a funny scene where Theodore engages in phone sex with a woman going by the username "SexyKitten").
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's soft-focus camerawork melds beautifully with the subtle, pastel-infused production design of K.K. Barrett. Their work suggests futuristic without going over the top (there are no flying cars or jet-packs here).
Like all good
science-fiction stories, "Her" gives insight into our current culture as it
predicts where our society may be headed. It offers a story that has a lot to
say about where our minds may take us in the future, but even more about where
our hearts might.
Edited 1/15/14 to correct the spelling of the lead character's name.