A man sits in a sleek, rainbow-hued modern office, dictating a love letter into his computer. At first, the sincere, impassioned words he’s speaking appear to be part of an intended mash note to his beloved. Then we start to notice that a few of the details are off—how could this thirtysomething guy be celebrating a golden wedding anniversary? And why is he referring to his younger self as “the girl I was”? The camera pulls back to reveal a roomful of office workers, all dictating similarly heartfelt missives as a phone rings and is answered: “Beautifuhandwrittenletters.com. Please hold.”
In a few swift, witty strokes, Spike Jonze, the writer and director of the ravishing new film Her, has established an ever-so-slightly futuristic world, one in which human intimacy is routinely outsourced to professional letter-writers who do the caring, remembering, confessing, and kvelling for you. That beautifully economical first scene makes you laugh even as it sets up the question that Her will investigate with a philosophical ambition rare in contemporary cinematic sci-fi: How are human beings changing as a result of, and in concert with, technology?
As we soon learn, the letter-writer, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely, socially awkward sort, separated for nearly a year from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), but unable to bring himself to sign the divorce papers. He lives in a high-rise apartment in a Los Angeles that, once again, seems just slightly off from the version of the city we know, a little bigger and shinier and more sterile (many of the film’s exteriors were shot in a district of Shanghai). After work in the evenings, Theodore plays interactive video games that are a shade more immersive than those currently in existence but that nonetheless leave him feeling empty and unfulfilled. That is, until the night Theodore brings home the OS1, a new computer operating system that he’s seen touted (in a curiously apocalyptic ad campaign) as the first artificially intelligent system of its kind.
When Theodore boots up the new system and answers a few preliminary questions, a strange thing happens: a female voice (that of Scarlett Johansson) comes online, speaking into Theodore’s wireless earpiece with a spontaneity and naturalness that belies her digital origin. After scanning a book of names in a fraction of a second, she chooses her own name, “Samantha,” and sets about organizing Theodore’s inbox with as much empathy as efficiency, even laughing at the jokes she comes across in his old emails.
Over the next few weeks, Theodore, bemused by the verisimilitude of this new technology, begins to test the limits of his new operating system (or is she testing his?). They engage in long, searching late-night conversations and excursions around the city with a monitor propped in Theodore’s pocket, camera side out, so that Samantha can “see” the places they’re exploring. With dizzying rapidity, the man and his operating system find themselves falling in love—and starting to accept, along with the audience, the notion that having a body isn’t a necessary prerequisite to having a relationship.
I won’t reveal too much about where Samantha and Theodore’s story goes from there, because it’s after the high-concept premise has come to feel natural that Her really takes off. But soon we start to notice that Theodore isn’t the only one palling around with a nonphysical entity: His best friend Amy (Amy Adams), a video-game designer and aspiring filmmaker who’s also recently separated, regards her female-voiced OS as a dear friend and sits up giggling with her late into the night. Everywhere Theodore looks, he sees people engaged in thoughtful colloquy with unseen interlocutors. But are humans and human-designed artificial intelligences capable of engaging in a real relationship? Samantha experiments with inviting a human sex surrogate to stand in for her in a physical encounter with her beloved, with humiliating results all around. Later, as Samantha’s consciousness begins to evolve and grow—remember, this is a woman, or entity, who can master whole fields of human knowledge in a matter of seconds—Theodore starts to feel jealous of her vast circle of invisible virtual friends, who include an AI reconstruction of the consciousness of the late Zen philosopher Alan Watts (a hilariously intimidating romantic rival if there ever was one).
“Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?” Theodore asks Amy while going through a rough patch with his invisible digital girlfriend. “Is it not real?” she replies. He doesn’t have a ready answer, and neither does the movie. It’s one of Her’s great strengths that it’s neither dystopian nor utopian in its vision of the coming singularity (the writer Ray Kurzweil’s term for an imagined future in which technology will have achieved consciousness). In the first hour especially, there are many well-chosen details that satirize our growing dependence on gadgets to enhance moment-to-moment lived experience. But just when you think someone is about to deliver a Luddite encomium to the primacy of the human, Jonze will pivot to a romantic scene between Samantha and Theodore that genuinely seems to be taking place between two flawed, headstrong lovers.
It’s hard to imagine any actor of his generation who could have carried off the lead role in Her other than Joaquin Phoenix. (Daniel Day-Lewis could have done it back in the day.) Phoenix is at his best in parts that require an absolute, almost insane commitment to reacting to the moment, whether it’s the unbalanced cult member of The Master or a self-destructive fictionalized version of himself in the hoax documentary I’m Still Here. Yet despite his signature intensity, Phoenix is blessedly free of the self-aggrandizing macho force field that seems to surround many “serious” male actors of his age. He’s alone on screen for great swaths of the film, interacting intensely with an off-screen voice, yet the performance never feels showy or solipsistic. Phoenix also gets the rare-for-him chance to play comedy; his Theodore is a hardworking, lonely, but doggedly optimistic schlemiel who sometimes recalls Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.
Like 2001: A Space Odyssey’s first menacing, then pitiable HAL 9000, Samantha also emerges over the course of the film as a complex character, thanks in large part to Scarlett Johansson’s scratchy, velvety, irreducibly human-sounding voice. Though we never catch a glimpse of her well-known movie-star face or body, Johansson gives a remarkably vibrant performance—albeit one that’s supported by another, invisible performance that must also have been a doozy. Initially, Samantha Morton was cast as the operating system, so during shooting, it was her line readings that Phoenix was responding to. Later, Jonze decided to replace Morton’s voice on the soundtrack with Johansson’s, layering the two performances on top of each other. It’s the perfect production-history hiccup for a film about the technological supplementation of identity and the replaceability (and irreplaceability) of the beloved.
It’s possible I let myself be seduced too much by the surfaces of Her, which is, arguably, something of a cinematic luxury product, with drifty ambient music by Karen O, The Breeders, and Arcade Fire, gorgeous ochre-toned cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, and clever costume design by Casey Storm (in the near future, Hollywood-waisted tweed trousers will apparently come roaring back into style; diet accordingly). I might have wished Jonze had spent more time exploring the social and economic repercussions of the technological revolution he imagines: How would the company that created OS1—which is only referenced once, in that creepy television ad—profit from the world-changing success of its product? Wouldn’t the existence of a virtual friend or romantic partner for over-the-counter purchase create social unrest by widening the divide between those who can afford it and those who can’t? (For that matter, are there any poor people in Spike Jonze’s future?) But Her isn’t, in the end, a political or socio-cultural satire, much less a nostalgic tract about the need to throw away our devices and truly live. It’s a wistful portrait of our current love affair with technology in all its promise and disappointment, a post-human Annie Hall.