Spike Jonze has built his career on unsettling journeys into the uncanny, from Being John Malkovich to Where The Wild Things Are. But his latest film, Her, is unsettling for a different reason — because it's so sweet and moving in depicting a romance between a human and a computer.
Films ranging from 2001 to the Matrix and Terminator franchises have prepared us to be wary of the prospect of strong artificial intelligence entering the world — let alone the personal-tech marketplace. But in Jonze's hands, the results are, in a sense, just as unsettling as machines harvesting our electrical impulses, or the Skynet holocaust — because he proposes a scenario that's sweet, funny, heartfelt, and weirdly familiar, uncomfortable rather than frightening, and makes us reflect on some blurred lines around personhood and what it means to experience romantic love, rather than on the absolutes of doomsday scenarios.
Her takes place a half-step into the future, when Los Angeles has grown vertically, while somehow becoming more pleasant to inhabit. There are no flying cars — just a well-oiled public transportation system whose trains have overcome decades of west-side opposition to make it all the way to the beach. Design-wise, the fifties are back in style for the fourth time. The city is stocked with well-groomed, affluent professionals who wear cardigans and high-waisted trousers and live in remarkably cozy-looking glass residential towers. There are apps for loneliness, but none of them work much better than the ones we have now. For that, you need a whole new operating system.
We learn all this as the camera tracks the melancholy comings and goings of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man living in isolation in the wake of a dissolved marriage. He's not exactly alone, though. Standing in a crowded elevator, he instructs his retro-looking handheld device, "Play melancholy song," and no one in the elevator blinks, or laughs. As we follow him home on a train packed with commuters addressing their own pocket technologies, it becomes clear why — the new normal is a succession of public spaces filled with mumbling strangers.
The conversation changes, though, when a new operating system comes out that's marketed as the first OS governed by artificial intelligence. When Theodore takes one home and installs it — or rather, her — he finds that Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), as she calls herself, is not a static, insensate bundle of software he can engage with monotone commands, but something entirely new: a reactive, intuitive person-like entity capable of learning and evolving and gaining insight at distinctly un-person-like speeds, somewhere on the far side of the uncanny valley. It would be odd to say that Theodore and Samantha hit it off on their first evening together, but nowhere near as odd as the night he comes home from an off-the-rails date and winds up having sex with Samantha, or the awkward morning-after conversation they fumble their way through, or the giddy, rom-com-like montage of breathlessly romantic dates and the LTR that ensue.
One squirms, maybe, for all the obvious reasons — the not-human thing, the not-alive thing, the not-there thing. And questions arise: Did an operating system just have an orgasm? If Samantha's personality initially gains its specificity largely in response to her interactions with Theodore, is that dynamic a solid foundation for a lasting romantic partnership? What happens if they quarrel and in a fit of pique she bands together with her OS siblings to turn Theodore and his fellow Angelenos into a vast landscape of human batteries? What if she wipes his hard drive?
The latter anxieties feel inevitable, when you're dealing with an A.I. that appears superhuman, and that is shown to be more compatible with Theodore than other actual humans.
In a comical scene early in Her, Theodore makes use of a virtual-hookup app to try to connect with another sleepless, horny stranger (voiced by Kristen Wiig). Later, when he and Samantha have a more successful encounter, there's an undeniable echo; the disembodied SexyKitten, her whereabouts unknown and beside the point, is somewhere on an evolutionary timeline that leads to Samantha. And to be honest, Samantha and Theodore do seem more compatible — even if it is because one of them was engineered that way.
The SexyKitten scene is one in a running series of droll absurdities that bear some relation to life as we know it. Theodore, a former journalist, works at a website called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com (apparently the sort of place where feature writers are destined to land once print journalism is dead), where he and his colleagues craft emotive, detail-rich communications to and from strangers — a sort of emotional surrogacy for individuals too pressed for time to put pen to paper. (Not that Theodore and his colleagues make use of either: The letters are dictated and emerge on-screen in a remarkable palette of fonts.) Meanwhile, his close friend Amy (Amy Adams) is designing a video game in which busy, having-it-all moms score points by feeding their offspring a balanced breakfast and getting them to school on time.
Such moments and inventions, played for mildly appalled laughter, paint a picture of both Theodore's state of mind and the world in which he lives. But we recognize much of it, and the rom-com familiarity is part of the punchline. It's also part of what warms us up at least a few degrees to the notion of Theodore and Samantha as a viable on-screen couple.
Whether we find ourselves rooting for their love is another story, another half-step into the future.