It’s being referred to as a romantic science-fiction story. But does “Her” really qualify as science fiction? Yes, though not in any spaceship or giant monster kind of way. This is more of a fable, one definitely set in the future. But not a very distant one. People dress a little differently (guys’ pants fashioned are kind of ’40s-retro), most folks appear to be addicted to newfangled gadgets, and everything is voice-activated. One of the biggest clues that this is futuristic, but not very, is a throwaway line of dialogue, a casual mention of a publishing house that still prints books.
In the film’s opening moments, it looks and sounds like it’s going to be a serious romantic story, as we see and hear Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) pouring his heart out, sharing warm and intimate words with some unseen love of his life. Turns out that she’s unseen because she’s not even there, and he has no idea to whom he’s talking. Theodore is just one man in a large office-ful of people reciting heartfelt thoughts into their computers, which then turn those words into correspondence. Theodore and those around him work for Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com.
He’s so good at his job, so poetic in his delivery, it’s shocking when it’s revealed that he’s a sad and lonely guy, still reeling from a broken marriage that’s nearing the finality of signing divorce papers. There were happy days, shown in flashback, of his time with Catherine (Rooney Mara), but now he seems lost. He’s afraid to go out and look for love again, but decides to at least try a dating service.
A dating service ... of sorts. It’s actually a software company that’s introducing a new operating system, one that a team of programmers has given a consciousness. Hunkering down at his home computer, and having requested an OS with a female voice, Theodore meets Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson). They chat, they laugh, they get to know each other. But because Samantha is a program now inside of his computer, she can instantly go through any other files on it. She can, for instance, read his emails, and let him know when they’ve arrived and if she considers them important.
Samantha isn’t anything like HAL in “2001.” She sounds like she’s a living, breathing person. And before long, Theodore starts believing that she is one. He communicates with her via gadgets – a little speaker in his ear, a tiny microphone. He has his smartphone sticking out of his shirt pocket so she can see what he sees. And maybe he didn’t pick up on what might have been a warning from the software company, but she is “evolving,” starting to wonder what it’s like to be human. After Theodore admits to Samantha, “I feel like I can say anything to you,” she confides that she’s been fantasizing about him.
Anyone wondering just how weird this is all going to get needs only to look at the credits and the name Spike Jonze, who directed “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” (both with scripts by Charlie Kaufman), then co-wrote (with Dave Eggers) and directed “Where the Wild Things Are.” Jonze gets sole writing and directing credits this time, and he pulls out the weirdness stops while still keeping a kind of subtleness around the film.
Aside from this being a high-concept movie, it’s also filled with terrific performances. There are other characters in it (played by, among others, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, and Patton Oswalt), but it’s much more of an acting duet, with Johansson contributing the equivalent of a very strong voiceover performance, and Phoenix ably handling what had to be one of his most difficult challenges: carrying a film while on-camera, but reacting to only a voice.
Things get odder, emotions run rampant, and there’s a revelation that there are many more people like Theodore, and OS’s like Samantha, that are hooking up. The film’s most out-there suggestion is that a computer program’s love can be more pure than a human’s. Maybe, or maybe you’ll think, as I did afterward, that things might be better if people just stayed with people, in warts-and-all relationships.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Spike Jonze
With Joaquin Phoenix, (voice of) Scarlett Johansson, Mara Rooney, Amy Adams