Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) has been having a difficult time processing the dissolution of his marriage to his first wife, Katherine (Rooney Mara): they grew up together, they went to college together, they saw each other through the hardships of establishing careers and beginning their adult lives. But he’s met someone new — her name is Samantha and she’s really great, super funny, smart, friendly, kind. She also sorts emails and files with ease, keeps track of calendar dates and events and wakes Theodore when it’s time to get out of bed in the morning.
Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is a highly intelligent operating system and Theodore is deeply in love with her.
Spike Jonze is probably best known for directing the 1999 film “Being John Malkovich” and 2009’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” the much-anticipated adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s story. “Her,” both written and directed by Jonze, almost makes his previous films irrelevant. It’s that good. Set in a Los Angeles of the not-so-distant future, this is no Jetsons-style, cartoonish future, — flying cars and metallic jumpsuits are nowhere to be found. When “Her” begins, it’s obvious that the film is set in the years ahead: Jonze shows us gadgets that haven’t been invented yet and it seems that the currently ubiquitous iPhone has been replaced by a new sort of device with an earpiece. The realm of “Her” is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, and that’s the beauty of it: the technology, clothing, and architecture in the film are different enough to be new and unfamiliar to viewers, yet they still manage to resemble the styles we see today just enough to make the time period portrayed in the film seem plausible and even a bit unsettling.
Throughout the film, Theodore’s loneliness becomes painfully clear. He works at a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. Day in and day out, he sits alone in a cubicle, composing intimate messages for the loved ones of individuals who can’t seem to find the time to do it themselves. In the future, Jonze seems to be saying that we as a society have outsourced emotional connection. We no longer have either the time or the inclination to love. A hired worker handles that now — and it’s ironic that it’s someone as isolated and love-starved as Theodore. At work, he interacts with only one colleague. When he does leave the office, it seems that he has just one friend, Amy (played by Amy Adams), who appears to be just as isolated as Theodore. Everyone is too “plugged in,” too engaged in their technology to interact with other people.
One evening at the train station, Theodore sees an ad for a new, hyper-intelligent and super-personalized operating system: a highly evolved version of Apple’s Siri, if you will. Soon enough, he’s bought the software and installed it to his home computer and cell phone. Samantha, as the operating system decides to call herself, has arrived. Theodore and Samantha begin chatting immediately, and their conversations quickly become flirtatious.
“Her,” is a classic guy-meets-girl-and-falls-in-love story, but in this case, it’s guy-meets-computer. Samantha rescues Theodore from his loneliness; instead of traveling, working and relaxing at home in silence, he now has someone to talk to, even if it is just through an earpiece. Scarlett Johansson is a fantastic choice for Samantha: she may never be seen on film, but the expressiveness of her husky voice gives her more than enough presence. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Theodore falls in love with her. And as Theodore, Phoenix is wonderful. The actor expresses Theodore’s profound sadness and desire for emotional connection without ever making him seem pathetic or crazy. Yes, he’s falling for his operating system, but this somehow seems plausible and acceptable. We feel badly for Theodore, but we can also see parts of ourselves in him. Humans are meant to be together, to interact, to share with each other, to love each other, and it seems that the technology of “Her” has made that impossible. Theodore is grasping at what he can to have a fulfilling relationship. Unfortunately, it appears that machines have become the best option.
Spike Jonze’s “Her” is beautifully shot. Panoramic scenes of a future Los Angeles alternate with close ups of actors’ oft-pained faces and scenes of Theodore’s whimsically decorated loft apartment. There’s something unsettling about the style of the set and costumes in that they’re simultaneously futuristic but reminiscent of a past era. The mustard yellows, corals, and geometric patterns of the character’s clothing and home decoration harkened back to the 1960s or 70s. The men of “Her” wear high-waisted pants and retro horn-rimmed glasses. It appears that as gadgets and computers have progressed, while fashion has, in a way, regressed — harkened back to styles evocative of decades gone by. Is this a metaphor for a tech-obsessed society? We’re plugged into our phones and computers 24/7 and our devices have never been more “intelligent,” but we’re deteriorating in other ways. As our machines get smarter, we get stupider, unable to interact with those around us and retreating further and further into ourselves at the expense of genuine human contact. In “Her,” computers have gained human-like capabilities while humans have all the feeling of a computer. That such a situation seems like a real possibility is what makes Jonze’s film so profound and unnerving. “Her” gives us a glimpse at love in the future, and we’re not supposed to like what we see.