When Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) tells his coworker that he is dating his operating system, no look of shock or judgement is given. Theodore doesn’t really seem all that embarrassed in his proclamation either. Similarly, Theodore tells one of his few friends (Amy Adams) the news and her response is imbued with curiosity and intrigue rather than disbelief or disappointment. And that is one of the many moments where writer/director Spike Jonze speculates the trajectory of our technology/human infusion in his new film “Her”. The blending of our living, breathing world with the immediate and intimate technological world of the near future is portrayed as something seductive and inevitable. Moreover, the futuristic details of the film never seem that far removed from where we are now. Visually and technologically speaking, the filmmakers have purposely created a world that seems less than (maybe)10 years away which diffuses the film’s sci-fi sheen. And it is in this muted futuristic framing that Jonze poses one of the film’s key questions: what defines a relationship?
Theodore works for a company that writes personal letters for people, a kind of Hallmark of the future. He has been in a rut for some time following a separation from his wife (Rooney Mara). He is withdrawn and depressed. Enter OS1, a new operating system which Theodore brings home one evening and installs on his computer. Earlier in the film we learn that this operating system is the first of it’s kind; it has artificial intelligence and can adapt, assimilate and personally engage with it’s owner. Theodore’s OS1 names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Understandably intrigued, he engages in conversation with Samantha and is quickly taken back by the ease and fluidity of their interaction. He carries her with him everywhere via his phone and an ear piece. It soon becomes clear that they are both falling for each other. And it’s here that the film rolls the dice and counts on us to accept the premise and take the journey with Theodore as he navigates uncharted territory. Or is the territory not that uncharted after all? One of the film’s strengths is the following through of ideas and concepts. If an operating system learns as it goes and enters a relationship with someone, what will it learn? If a relationship is based on mutual trust, understanding and the ability to connect, is it so strange to be in a relationship with an operating system if it can, in fact, do those things?
Jonze is working with questions and ideas that are not that far removed from Asimov but he is not that interested in predicting the future as he is in showing how we are susceptible to self-induced isolation; something we wrestle with as humans now. There is a scene where Theodore is sitting on some steps contemplating his life and Jonze keeps cutting from him sitting to what he sees which is people walking up and down the stairs talking to their operating systems and not each other. It’s an image we already see now (people talking on phones) and the idea of it progressing one step further (people talking on phones to their OS) feels almost natural.
“Her” is a quiet film, small in scale and emotionally muted but I was very engaged by Pheonix’s performance and the film’s ability to build upon questions of what happens when a OS/man relationship begins to evolve. Rather than inject high emotion or glaring satire, Jonze goes for a more poetic, lyrical tone which suits the story; especially when Theodore and Samantha’s relationship reaches it’s fate. I also enjoyed the look of the film with it’s endless light-through-glass buildings, pastel colors and slightly frumpy, eclectic costume design. Spike Jonze continues to make films that defy categorization and with “Her” he has also made one of the best films of 2013. Highly recommended.