With new advances in voice activation software and smartphone applications like the iPhone’s Siri, the apparent gap between humans and machines has grown rapidly smaller. We’re at the point where we can even have conversations with our cell phones. Yet there are limits: When Siri is posed the question, “What is love?” its response is, “I can’t answer that.”
As far as technology has come, our machines are still unable to process this aspect of the human condition. But what if they did have that ability? And if we loved them back?
Her follows the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who writes personal notes and love letters for other people even as he himself is going through a painful divorce from his emotionally unstable wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Set in the near future, his life is dominated by immersive video games, phone sex with strangers, and listening to the monotone drone of his phone as it reads him his e-mails and appointments. It’s a cripplingly lonely existence, and after seeing an advertisement in his building, Theodore decides to shake things up and purchase a new A.I. operating system, “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson), to replace his old, lifeless phone. What starts as a playful friendship between the two evolves into something more as Theodore becomes increasingly dependent on Samantha’s council and companionship as he deals with his divorce and dating in the real world. Their subsequent romance is the most provocative, divisive, and downright moving relationship in recent cinema.
At the heart of the film is the question of whether Samantha and Theodore’s romance is valid, or if it is even ethical for human and machine to have a relationship. Despite having a real and evolving personality, Samantha is based off of the programmers who made her and exists only as a voice on a computer. Her processors make her infinitely intelligent and fast, yet she lacks a body and any real-world experiences or memories. The film’s strength rests in the ambiguity of the relationship between Samantha and Theodore. While one person might see the film as a stirring romance between lovers divided by their physical bodies, it could also easily be seen as a dystopian look at our society’s relationship with technology.
“Are these feelings real?” Samantha sighs at one point, “Or is it just programming?” By the end of the film it’s not really clear. Spike Jonze—who both wrote and directed the film—avoids making any definitive statements one way or the other, and even as you cheer for their romance to flourish, doubts linger in the back of your mind about how real their love is. This is emphasized by the film’s yellowish tint throughout, which gives the shots a warm, yet unreal, feeling. It’s almost as if it were filmed using an Instagram filter, and although the effect is bright and inviting, it sometimes looks too good to be true.
A majority of the film is devoted to Samantha and Theodore working these issues out, filled with lengthy shots of Theodore alone in bed talking about love and life with Samantha in his ear. In these scenes Phoenix and Johansson truly shine. Phoenix carries the film as his character transitions between extreme doubt in his relationship and simple contentedness spending a day showing Samantha the carnival or the beach. While Phoenix is the physical figurehead of Her, Johansson is able to steal a few scenes with only her voice. She absolutely purrs and manages to capture the longing Samantha has for physical intimacy without ever physically appearing onscreen.
Her has been nominated for five Oscars this year, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Whether you find it to be a moving romantic comedy or a cautionary tale of what is to come, Her is a truly enjoyable cinematic experience and a provocative work of art.