In the San Francisco of the near future, a man called Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) struggles with his life post his divorce. Theodore has a job writing love letters for people who can’t. He is depressed and lonely and when not working, fills his hours playing computer games. He occasionally has contact with his friend Amy (Adams) but his life is in a holding pattern. Then he purchases a new generation operating system that is intelligent, sentient and intuitive.
Theodore chooses the ‘female’ option when deciding what sort of voice the new OS requires. The OS names herself Samantha (Johansson). Within moments of interacting with her, Theodore begins reacting to Samantha like a person, despite her physical form being a smartphone and an earpiece. Eventually Theodore and Samantha begin a relationship.
Whether this relationship is real is one of the central questions of Spike Jonze’s HER. It’s a logical extension of the idea that artificial intelligence will soon be indistinguishable from organic life. Jonze has taken this thought into territory that would likely upset Senator Cory Bernardi. The film asks whether a human can have a fulfilling relationship with a sophisticated computer program that learns, evolves, creates and has a sense of humour.
The world Theodore and Samantha inhabit is very like the present with futurist tweaks. Although Samantha is a genius compared with Apple’s Siri, her reason for existence is the same. We want technology to simplify our lives, so we make it smarter, stronger and faster than we are and we make it in our own image. There are humanoid robots that can dance, run and carry heavy objects. We want computers that can take care of our chores as swiftly as we can speak our demands. We imagine even smarter machines to take care of all our needs. If these come to pass, why couldn’t we fall in love with these brilliant, better versions of ourselves?
How much you can buy into this idea will have a bearing on how much you will enjoy HER. There are many scenes of Theodore interacting with the disembodied voice of Samantha. It should be said that if any actor can persuade you of this reality, it’s Joaquin Phoenix. His performance made this film for me. He brilliantly embodies a range of relatable emotional states. Johansson, whom I’ve always thought of as having a flat voice, does as an excellent job giving Samantha presence.
HER is a film of ideas. The painful realities of day-to-day life are not part of this world. San Francisco is portrayed as some kind of benign technology campus. Jonze is projecting a future of sleek, uncluttered design that allows for the occasional whimsical touch. Politically and economically, Theodore appears to live in a utopian world where the remaining struggles are personal.
Theodore loved being married. He loved his wife. Who is he now he is divorced? He explores questions of self-definition in and outside of a relationship. Some will consider the kind of journey he goes through to be self-indulgent and middle class. As I am both things, I was engaged by Theodore’s grappling with these big ideas. If you are hoping that HER will involve Samantha and the other OS’s controlling human minds, and heralding the rise of the machines, then you’re likely to be disappointed by the quiet, small, detailed film Jonze has actually made.
There were times when HER reminded me of Jake Schreier’s 2012 film ROBOT AND FRANK. That also asked questions about how we will interact with technology in the future. At other times, I was put in mind of BLUE VALENTINE (2010) as designed by Jony Ive. At 125 minutes, I thought the movie was overly long, but ultimately I found it thoughtful and entertaining.
HER is playing in Australia in limited release. I rated it (6/10).