As a fascinating mix of compelling science fiction and heartfelt love story, Spike Jonze’s “Her” fascinates and tantalizes us through its smart, thought-provoking tale to muse on. The romantic relationship at the center of its story is quite odd and unconventional from the start, and it might sound silly to you at first, but the movie handles the story and characters with considerable intelligence and sensitivity to grip our interest. Fascinated by its brave new world which may be not that far from ours, we are intrigued by the questions it raises through the story, and then the movie surprises us with genuine emotions as deeply exploring into its seemingly non-human relationship with the equal amounts of care and curiosity.
Its story is set in a future era which is probably around the late 21th century, and we can see many signs of technological advancement here and there in the city in the movie. While we see no flying car or big spaceship in the sky, there are a number of futuristic architectures in its urban landscape, and its streets and buildings are shrouded in the smooth, colorful ambience which imbues its familiar background with otherworldly feeling. Electronic devices and softwares are mostly operated by voice recognition or touchpad interface while becoming smaller and simpler; when we see our hero Theodore Twombly(Joaquin Phoenix) at his workplace, he just simply dictates his writings to his computer instead of typing on keyboard, and so do his co-workers around him. As a guy more comfortable with typing than speaking, I could not help but notice the absence of keyboard and mouse on their desks – can I be also comfortable in such a simple setting like that?
Theodore works in a special service website named beautifulhandwrittenletter.com, and he writes custom letters for birthdays or anniversaries or any other special private occasions. While his letters are as inherently artificial as those postcards sold at stationery shops, he is a good writer who can write nice, beautiful letters to satisfy his customers, and his computer is always ready to package them into lovely handwritten forms once his work is done.
While his customers are happy and satisfied thanks to his well-written letters, Theodore himself is not very happy at all due to his failed relationship with his wife Catherine(Rooney Mara), who is currently going through the divorce process with him. He feels depressed and disoriented as his mind being constantly haunted by the memories of his happy days with Catherine, and that is the main reason why he feels miserable again during a blind date set up by his caring friend Amy(Amy Adams).
On one day, he comes across a commercial about the latest computer operating system software. According to the commercial, it is the first OS equipped with artificial intelligence programmed to adapt and evolve, and it does work wondrously as soon as he buys it and then installs it on his computer. As he chose in advance, it interacts with him through its female voice, and it already chooses its name by itself: Samantha.
Samantha(voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who replaced Samantha Morton during the production) openly talks with Theodore even during their first encounter which feels pretty awkward on his side, and she soon becomes a part of his daily life while continuing to learn and evolve as programmed. She is an efficient secretary who instantly takes care of many things for him, and she also becomes someone to talk with as they closely work together or hang around together.
And then, like many characters of romance films, Theodore and Samantha come to discover a certain mutual feeling between them, and both are naturally perplexed by that while feeling good about that. To Theodore, it is an unexpected special love which makes him more joyful and brightened than before, and the movie virtually becomes sunny in its mood whenever he enjoys his time with Samantha. His ‘girl’ is not human, and he certainly knows that, but he is all right with that because he has never been happy like that recently.
In case of Samantha, well, it is a bit difficult to tell about her feelings because of her own very nature. She can think and learn as expected to any artificial intelligence, so she explores her own feelings about herself and Theodore while recognizing her electronic existence, but can we really say that her emotions are real? Or are they just more or less than the executions of her upgraded programs? We can definitely say our emotions are real, but aren’t they more or less than electrochemical signals switched on and off inside our bodies which happen to be driven by the genetic program upgraded through evolution? If so, does that mean that we can accept the feelings of artificial intelligence as something as real as ours?
While understandably not having answers for these intriguing questions, the movie instead focuses on what can possibly happen in this unorthodox romance, and the growing intimacy between Theodore and Samantha is thoughtfully handled with warmth and intelligence on the screen. Although physical intercourse is out of question for them, Theodore and Samantha finds a way of, uh, being more intimate with each other than before, and the movie wisely steps back from their private moment while they both reach for their common goal together in Theodore’s bedroom.
Meanwhile, Theodore and Samantha’s unconventional relationship draws various reactions from others, and the movie does not take a side while not being judgmental on their relationship. When she hears from Theodore that he is being romantically involved with his OS, Catherine is repulsed by that, and that leads to a small argument between them even though they are now officially ex-wife and ex-husband. In contrast, Amy does not mind about Theodore’s new lover because she also finds a consoling companionship from her OS after her husband left her, and Theodore’s jolly co-worker Paul(Chris Pratt) gladly invites Theodore and Samantha to a double date with him and his current girlfriend, who enjoys a nice girls’ talk with Samantha while their boys are spending their own time.
The director/writer Spike Jonze, who started his filmmaking career with two wildly inventive films “Being John Malkovich”(1999) and “Adaptation”(2002) and recently received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his clever screenplay for this film(the movie also got nominated in several categories including Best Picture), rolls his premise with lots of humor and ideas to entertain us. The movie is also visually engaging to watch, and I enjoyed the pastel tones of its production design along with the amusing details of its futuristic background(you will be probably tickled by a cute but foul-mouthed character in the 3D hologram video game played by Theodore at his home).
The emotional aspect of the movie depends a lot on Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, and they always make their scenes real and convincing although they never appear together on the screen throughout the film. Phoenix, who looks equally troubled but a lot more gentle and benign compared to his disturbing Oscar-nominated turn in “The Master”(2012), gives another interesting performance to watch as an introverted man feeling awkward a lot about himself, and Johansson did a fabulous job of creating an immensely compelling character only through her fetching voice. One of the pleasures in the film is how Samantha evolves not only as artificial intelligence but also as the main character as fully three-dimensional as Theodore, and there is an amusing scene in which Samantha tries to be something more than a computer voice to the man she loves. Her trial ultimately(and hurtfully) fails while only confirming the barrier between them, so they try to live with that gap between their existences, but, ironically, they later find themselves becoming just like any ordinary couples while realizing that their romance might not last forever.
“Her” is a funny and touching SF romantic comedy film with lots of brain and heart, and you will probably think about its many interesting aspects after the end credits rolls. I have no idea on what will really happen when we come to encounter artificial intelligence, but, as suggested in the poignant finale of the film, we will probably learn more about ourselves – as it learns about the matters of our heart and mind.