Coming out of the multiplex after seeing Her, I entered directions for my house into Apple Maps. As the artificial female sound gave me turn-by-turn directions in that familiar monotone voice, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d feel about "her" if the software was slightly more advanced.
I’m not even talking about a fully functioning artificial intelligence with a cognitive learning ability. I’m talking about the same voice, maybe with more human-like inflections, greeting me with a warm tone, maybe sounding slightly confused when I take a wrong turn.
Right now, we wouldn’t really care if Apple decided to change the voice and characterizations of Maps or Siri because they still operate on a strictly emotionless level. But if Siri could carry on the most basic of cordial small talk, wouldn’t we miss her a little bit if our phone broke one day or worse yet, if Apple decided to replace her with "someone else"?
At its core, Spike Jonze’s Her is a classic love story in both style and structure. It focuses intently on two sentient beings that gradually fall in love and intimately follows them through all stages of their relationship. The only difference here is this love is between a man and an advanced operating system.
In an apparent near future (The period is never clearly specified), anti-social oddball Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is in a constant melancholic state as a shut-in because of his impending divorce. In a state of desperation, he purchases an highly developed operating system that calls herself Samantha, voiced by Scarlet Johansson with some of the most moving voice acting I’ve heard in a long time.
Samantha is not an ordinary OS. Through her interactions with people, she can learn and grow into a unique character utilizing the entire wide array of emancipating and crippling feelings that plague homo sapiens every day. Eventually, Theodore establishes a unique human connection with Samantha, one which he could not find with anyone else. He gradually falls in love with her and to his surprise he finds out that his feelings are reciprocated.
From this point on, this seemingly sit-com premise could have gone wrong in so many ways, either turning into Meet the CPUs or Single White Motherboard. But writer/director Jonze is much smarter than the confines of the Hollywood genre machine and instead of following any of the numerous possible gimmicky or forced-quirky shortcuts of the premise, he presents an honest, intelligent and eventually emotionally engaging human story.
Jonze knows that such advanced technology is inevitable in our future but he’s more interested in the personal story rather than the social ramifications for such a concept. Human-CPU relationships gradually become commonplace as Theodore’s best friend (Amy Adams) strikes up a close friendship with her OS and fully supports Theodore’s relationship, and his work colleague (Chris Pratt) doesn’t even do a double-take when Theodore finally confesses to him that his girlfriend is in fact a computer.
However, we don’t see the trajectory of any other human-CPU romantic relationship and Jonze sticks very close to Theodore and Samantha’s journey. This focus is visually communicated via the fact that a good chunk of the film consists of close-ups of Phoenix’s face.
It’s commonplace for close-ups of the couple to be used frequently in a romance so the director can bring the audience into the intimacy of the relationship. Since one part of this romance does not have a body, we’re treated to a brave visual style that focuses on a single actor. This approach could have been devastatingly dull if both Phoenix and Johansson’s performances weren’t pitch-perfect.
Theodore and Samantha establish a soulful connection possibly thanks to the lack of a physical relationship, although they try making up for that. During a scene where Theodore and Samantha finally consummate their desires for each other via self-satisfaction, Jonze takes a grand gamble for a director as he leaves the audience in complete darkness for a good minute as we hear them climax. His brave visual (Or non-visual) decision pays off in spades as it establishes an almost metaphysical connection between the two characters.
As Samantha keeps growing much beyond human capabilities, a hard decision she makes during the third act may seem like it takes the story into philosophical hard science-fiction territory. However, it also presents nothing but a blunt, honest and incredibly touching ending that makes perfect sense and if you think about it for a second, was unpreventable.
Like the best science fiction or speculative fiction stories, Her manages to bring a moving human tale in the guise of high concept technical philosophizing. It might be the first true romance of the 21st Century.