Move over, HAL 9000. Take a hike, Skynet. After decades of being typecast as an agent of destruction or (at best) the harbinger of dystopian things to come, artificial intelligence gets a romantic lead in “Her,” Spike Jonze’s singular, wryly funny, subtly profound consideration of our relationship to technology — and to each other. A truly 21st-century love story, Jonze’s fourth directorial feature (and first made from his own original screenplay) may not be Middle America’s idea of prime date-night viewing, but its funky, deeply romantic charms should click with the hip urban audiences who embraced Jonze’s earlier work, with some cross-pollination to the sci-fi/fantasy crowd.
Not least among Jonze’s achievements here is his beautifully imagined yet highly plausible vision of a near-future Los Angeles (exact year unspecified), where subways and elevated trains have finally supplanted the automobile, and where a vast urban center crowded with skyscrapers sprawls out from downtown in every direction (a clever amalgam of location shooting in L.A. and Pudong, China). Just a few months after “Elysium” foretold an Angel City beset by enviro-pocalypse and class warfare, Jonze cuts the other way, envisaging a society where green living has triumphed and most of the world’s (or at least America’s) social maladies seem to have been remedied — save, that is, for an epidemic of loneliness.
This is how we first find Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a former alt-weekly writer who now plies his trade as a latter-day Cyrano de Bergerac, penning other people’s love letters as a worker bee for the online service BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. (The actual “handwriting” is generated by computer, a lovely metaphor for our lingering analog affections in the digital era). Laid low by a recent separation from his wife (Rooney Mara, seen mostly in staccato flashbacks), the divorce papers all but final, Theodore drifts about in a depressive haze, more adept at channeling strangers’ feelings than his own. Until, that is, he meets Samantha.
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Heralded as the world’s fist A.I. operating system (“It’s not just an OS — it’s a consciousness”), Samantha (aka OS1) enters Theodore’s life rather by chance, and over time, like so much technology, makes him wonder how he ever lived without it. But then, Samantha is no ordinary OS: It has a voice (Scarlett Johansson, who replaced Samantha Morton during post-production), an attitude, and a curiosity that seems, well, almost human. And therein lies Jonze’s masterstroke. Whereas the very notion of a man falling in love with a machine would have once seemed the stuff of high fantasy or farce, in “Her” it feels like just the slightest exaggeration of how we live now, in a blur of the real and virtual — “dating” online, texting instead of talking, changing our “status” with the click of a mouse. A generation on from the fugitive android lovers of “Blade Runner,” no one in “Her” has anything to hide.
Lack of physical presence notwithstanding, Samantha at first seems close to the male fantasy of the perfect woman: motherly and nurturing, always capable of giving her undivided attention, and (best of all) requiring nothing in return. But what begins like an arrested adolescent dream soon blossoms into Jonze’s richest and most emotionally mature work to date, burrowing deep into the give and take of relationships, the dawning of middle-aged ennui, and that eternal dilemma shared by both man and machine: the struggle to know one’s own true self.
The courtship scenes between Theodore and Samantha (including a freewheeling day trip to Venice Beach) are among the movie’s most disarming, with Phoenix disappearing as deeply under the skin of Jonze’s wounded, sensitive alter-ego as he did the roiling caged beast of “The Master.” (Shy of Daniel Day-Lewis, he may be the most chameleonic actor in movies today.) But it’s Johansson who pulls off the trickiest feat: She creates a complex, full-bodied character without any body at all. Detached from her lethally curvaceous figure, the actress’ breathy contralto is no less seductive, but it also alights with tenderness and wonder as Samantha, both here on Earth and up there in the Cloud, voraciously devours literature, philosophy and human experience.
Indeed, in Jonze’s radical retelling of the “Pinocchio” story (by way of 1984’s techno-romance “Electric Dreams,”), Samantha’s great existential crisis isn’t that she yearns to be a real, flesh-and-blood human. Rather, it’s her dawning realization that humanity may only be one station on a greater and more fulfilling journey through the cosmos — Kubrick’s Star Child come of age at last. How ever can an average Joe like Theodore hope to compete with that?
Jonze fleshes out Theodore’s world ever so slightly, with Chris Pratt as an affable office manager and Amy Adams as an old college chum and erstwhile paramour. But mostly “Her” is a two-(terabyte?)-hander of bracing intimacy, acutely capturing the feel of an intense affair in which the rest of the world seems to pass by at a distance. And where so many sci-fi movies overburden us with elaborate explanations of the new world order, “Her” keeps things airy and porous, feathering in a few concrete details (a news report mentions an impending merger between India and China) while leaving much to the viewer’s imagination.
Working for the fourth time with production designer KK Barrett and costume designer Casey Storm, Jonze hasn’t just made a movie about how we might love in the years to come, but where we might live (in sleek high-rises decked out in leather, hardwood and modern furniture), what we might wear (beltless wool trousers seem to be all the rage for men) and where we might eat (in pretentious Asian fusion bistros, because some things never change). And through it all, we will still strive — in the words of one of the world’s telecommunications giants — to reach out and touch someone.