Spike Jonze’s Her is a tender, wry, deceptively modest package—and the closer you look, the more it reveals itself to be the proverbial Movie For Our Times. It would make a neat double bill with last year’s somewhat less distinctive Ruby Sparks, about a man who falls in love with the literary character he’s created but must come to terms with the gradually evolving autonomy of a woman who doesn’t intend only to be the eternal dream girlfriend. Her depicts a similar scenario, up to a point. Its hero doesn’t create his dream woman, not exactly—and in any case, she’s not really there, or strictly speaking, anywhere. She’s only a voice, an effect projected by a piece of computer software, although it’s hard to say for sure whether the laughing, purring tones and the mechanisms that generate her are or aren’t the real “Samantha.”
Her is set in one of those cinematic futures that are barely further away than next week. The setting is Los Angeles, where the colors radiate with a gentle candy glow, and the clothes have a 1980s cozy childishness about them—big glasses, tucked-in shirts. Everyone seems happy and independent yet oddly detached, forever in private conference with their phones; seem like any world you know? The notion of intimacy has so fallen into disrepair that protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) makes his living custom-composing intimate letters for others, printed out in an authentic hand-scripted look: the company is called beautifulhandwrittenletters.com.
Theodore is good at his job, a true artist when it comes to voicing intimacy on the behalf of others. Meanwhile he’s separated from his wife Catherine (a nicely brittle Rooney Mara) and spends much of his time at home interfacing with a sarcastic little cyber-alien in a 3-D game. Then he gets a new operating system for his computer, one tailored to his personality and needs. He chooses the female version, the installer asks him how he got on his mother…. and that’s all the OS needs to materialize as Samantha, a lifelike consciousness that spontaneously writes itself into being. Samantha is the perfect helper/secretary/surrogate mother for this needy overgrown boy, and better still, it/she has an irresistible voice, speaking in the husky, flirtatious, sweetly amused tones of Scarlett Johansson.
Before long, Theodore falls for Samantha and her perfectly attuned empathy—and, bizarrely, she falls for him. She develops a consciousness and, with it, a system of emotional and even sexual response. She begins by interacting with Theodore’s narcissism (“You know me so well,” he marvels), but as she studies the world she’s come into, she becomes a complex organism with desires and aspirations: studying advice columns, she says: “I want to be as complicated as these people.” She starts taking pleasure in her own possibilities, although they trouble her too: she confesses she’s embarrassed to have personal thoughts, even fantasies of having a body.
Before long, she and Theodore share a night of passion that’s virtual yet seems pretty real—amusingly, with the same morning-after embarrassment of two humans. Disembodied, never really there and yet everywhere (she can be in Theodore’s phone, his earpiece, anywhere he can log in), she’s like a digital female Pinocchio turned “real girl” or like the sexy, infinitely sophisticated granddaughter of 2001’s HAL.
The bewitchingly odd thing about Samantha’s evolution stems from the way that we ourselves will her into being as we watch. Samantha becomes all the more real to us because we know there’s no one there, and that stimulates our imagination all the more. An intimate rapport comes into being between this strange couple—a real, visible man and an invisible voice-off woman, both reacting with delight and surprise to each other’s possibilities. Phoenix’s performance is all the more extraordinary because the actor is bouncing off an empty space; and Johansson’s all the more extraordinary because she embodies that space, filling it with… what exactly? Well, partly with all the fantasies that attach to the idea of Scarlett Johansson and her unmistakable tones: Samantha’s voice conjures up a palimpsest image of whichever physical Johansson performance you’ve found the most alluring. (In fact, Johansson stepped into a role originally recorded by Samantha Morton, whose vocal contribution somehow didn’t work out; Johansson’s invisibility has been effectively written over hers.)
Relationships between organic beings don’t tend to work out in this film’s world: Theodore goes on what seems the ideal blind date (with a mesmerizingly full-on Olivia Wilde), which goes wrong as quickly as it heats up. So it’s no surprise that Theodore should be attracted to someone who’s literally made for him. Catherine complains: “You could never handle real emotions.” But who says emotions are only worthy if they’re inspired by flesh and blood? (Plenty of people fall in love with Anna Karenina, or Julien Sorel, and they’re only made out of print.) While we watch Theodore become addicted to an artificial pleasure, the film asks us whether we’re so sure that there’s anything wrong with this relationship. After all, it’s giving him exactly what he wants, and fulfilling the nascent desires of a cyber-organism that didn’t know it had desires in the first place.
For a long time, things only go wrong between the lovers when they overreach with their sexual explorations and hire a woman to play surrogate. It’s a wonderfully uncomfortable comic scene: the woman arrives, puts on a micro-camera like a beauty spot, and provides the body to go with Samantha’s voice in a virtual threesome of dizzying disconnection.
It’s strange to think that perhaps the most intelligent, self-possessed, and manifestly sane heroine of any recent American film is not a woman at all, but software. Yet she is truly a thinking, feeling heroine: she wonders skeptically about herself and her desires (“Are those feelings real or are they just programmed?”), and she makes her lover respond more deeply than he’s probably ever responded to humans. Theodore starts asking the very questions we’ve probably been asking: for example, about Samantha’s little quizzical intakes of breath: “It’s not like you need oxygen or anything.”
The question arises: what if artificial intelligences could develop richer, more sensitive, more inquisitive consciousnesses than us? What if computers could be better people (not to say more adult, given the spoiled, numbed, infantilized humans we see here)? But then our love wouldn’t be able to keep up with them; algorithms can break your heart too.
Photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema, designed by K.K. Barrett in a disarming marshmallow palette (inspired by the colors of Jamba Juice smoothie bars) and sonically shot through with the subliminal hum of a super-cushioned world, the film evokes the most convincing same-but-different future city since the sketchily glimpsed one in Soderbergh’s Solaris. What’s so entrancing about Her, however, is that it doesn’t offer a Terrible Warning—we’re far too used to them—but expresses its future vision as a seductive comic conceit. This elegant, moving entertainment is richer and more adult than you might have expected Spike Jonze to come up with (it’s his first solo script credit). It’s the perfect date movie to take your iPhone to, or even a living person if you’re that way inclined.