Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity
Written and directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams and more
I love it when a movie surprises me.
When I first heard about "Her," Spike Jonze's futuristic fairy tale about a man falling in love with an artificial intelligence, I was certain it was going to be some tired extended metaphor about our technology-obsessed society and the dangers of shutting yourself off with only electronics for company. They could even throw in something about the futility of seeking for an impossible ideal, since the AI could so easily become a reflection of nothing more than the main character's desires.
Thankfully, Jonze's vision was much purer and more wonderfully complicated than that. The film never sees the AI, who names herself Samantha, as anything less than a fully autonomous person struggling with issues of her own identity and place in the universe. She and Theodore, played with beautiful subtlety by Joaquin Phoenix, face a number of issues familiar even to couples who both have corporeal bodies. At its heart, "Her" is simply a love story. That's what's so great about it.
The movie is set in the near future, where L.A. has gone skyscraper and technology has evolved just enough to be believable. Samantha and the other operating systems like her seem to be the first true AIs on the market, and not-quite-divorced Theodore buys one in hopes of getting his life back on track. After he installs it, she surprises him with a conversation and things evolve from there.
Phoenix's Theodore is the heart of the movie, a gentle soul who is damaged but not quite as broken as he first thinks. At first glance he seems like exactly the kind of isolated soul who traditionally gets too attached to his computer in these kind of stories, but Phoenix gives Theodore enough layers to keep him fully away from any stereotype. The isolation is relatively new, an assertion that seems entirely believable when Phoenix's expression blossoms with light and welcome, and it's clear Theodore has the soul of a poet. He also has plenty of believable faults, and though we sympathize it's not hard to see why his marriage broke up.
Scarlett Johansson is both excellent and surprisingly vital as the voice of Samantha. Jonze clearly took some serious looks at psychology and the evolution of consciousness when he created the character, but Johansson's warm, easily breakable voice keeps her character's journey stay fully human. Thanks to her, I saw Samantha as "human" almost immediately, sympathizing with her and hurting for her as much or more than any of the other characters.
Their love story isn't nearly as neat or tidy as those found in traditional romance movies, full of heartbreaking and serious questions without easy answers. There were plenty of times when I wanted to shout at Theodore for hurting Samantha, even as I could entirely understand his own doubt and pain.
In the end, though, real love is always messy. Human or AI, it's the price we pay for being alive.