Spike Jonze’s film her asks a question science fiction has been doing so throughout its history; can we love machines too much? It tells the story of quiet and reserved Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an urban dweller of the near future in an era when artificial intelligence-based computer operating systems are starkly human-like. When he buys one and it adopts a persona calling itself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), Theo promptly falls in love with it – and it seemingly with him.
Rather than a movie about technology, it’s a story about loneliness and love. One of the film’s strengths is in not casting judgment on the characters – you’ll find yourself equally fascinated and repulsed by people who can so seamlessly let technology take the place of real people entirely on your own view. It comes into sharp focus when Samantha starts asking Theodore how he’d touch her if she were real, the screen going black to leave us with the sounds of very human-like sexual passion.
Her goes in several interesting directions, few of them the ones you expect. The films seems to set Theodore up for a Dr Frankenstein-like fall at the hands of his creation, but his relationship with Samantha goes in a decidedly human direction that makes you wonder whether we’re the masters or the servants of such smart technology.
The background and design of the world is a particular highlight. The Los Angeles setting (filmed partly in China, ironically) feels familiar enough to seem like our world a few years hence, yet remote enough that you’ll be partly relieved we don’t live there yet. It speaks volumes about both our time-poor lives and the ironic use of technology to personalise experiences – Theodore makes a living producing hand written letters between loved ones based on the personal information they provide.
Jonze and his production designers have made technology unobtrusive (just like current futurists say it will be), and the same-yet-different feel to the world is achieved by what’s left out as much as what’s on screen. You won’t realise there’s no automotive traffic or denim jeans, for instance, until later.
The design, performances and story arc add up to a very relevant – some would say scary – tale for our times, one that’s destined to be talked about for a long time. The genesis of ‘Her’s‘ world is all around us today in the attachment we feel to our phones and tablets, and it seems only a short leap to the time when they respond to us like another human would.
It’s an expertly designed piece of art because you’ll bring all your own beliefs and prejudices to it depending on your relationship with technology. To some, Theodore will be a sad sack who needs to unplug and get out more. Others will long for the connection Samantha offers that’s impossible in the human world without compromise and disappointment. But when Samantha’s ultimate fate causes him to draw closer to his real-world friend Amy (Amy Adams), you might wonder if Samantha knew exactly what she was doing all along.