In the future, computers will be not only our friends and lovers, they’ll also help us discover our better selves. That seems to be the message of Spike Jonze’s partially genius, often infuriating yuppie sci-fi fantasy about love and meaning in the post-smartphone era. It’s a film that spends so much effort perfecting the sun-dappled look seen in digital-tech commercials, and squinting to see how technology will operate a few years hence, that it doesn’t have much energy left over for its humans. Jonze seems more truly engaged by Samantha, who is the most well-rounded character in the film. Notably, she’s not human.
The setting is an undefined near future that looks like Los Angeles crossed with Shanghai. Everybody lives in high-rise apartments filled with tastefully handcrafted furnishings and sleek, unobtrusive electronics. Between the Ikea-meets-Apple design scheme and brightly-colored, faux-nerd attire (lots of high-waisted pants and sweaters), everything appears to operate on a smoothly undulating strata where there’s no problem that can’t be solved by an app. There are no riots in this city, just sparkling beaches and great public transportation.
Samantha is the name for the new operating system just ordered up by bored loner Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, mumblier than usual). After a few comically perfunctory questions, the program (whose vague advertising tag is “It understands you”) launches on Theodore’s laptop, Scarlett Johnansson’s voice comes perking out of the speaker. He’s hooked instantly. She’s funny and self-deprecating, just pushy enough in a cute “come on, sleepyhead” way that sees immediate dividends. Right out the gate she’s ready to be Theodore’s best friend, office assistant, life partner, and possibly even girlfriend. Able to reorder files on his hard drive in seconds while simultaneously carrying on a flirty conversation and searching all known databases for helpful hints, Samantha is like Theodore’s new millennium Jeeves with a more romantic attitude and less diffident manner.
The best thing that Jonze does with Samantha is leap right past the expected stages of an artificial intelligence’s growth into human-like consciousness. There’s no clumsy stumbling around the “who made who?” human-computer dynamic in the manner of a family-friendly 1980s film about a helpful android who learns to care or bombastically alarmist artificial-intelligence dystopia. In its later sections, Jonze gets highly inventive with the notion that Samantha is not only sentient on a human level but well surpasses any person who’s actually lived.
Right out of the box, Samantha is alarmingly sentient. She’s youthful and giddy, awash in awe at this new life she’s just been handed. In other words, the perfect digital pixie dream girl to awaken Theodore’s sad sad life. Prior to his tech epiphany, his existence seemed bounded by work, computer games, bad memories, and the occasional and almost accidental bumping up against other humans. A bad divorce haunts his past — Rooney Mara floating lightly through his dreams like just another formless ideal — and his present is more simulation than the thing itself. So why not fall in love with a computer? The one real date we see (Olivia Wilde) goes wildly bad, and the platonic female friend Jonze has hanging around (Amy Adams) is just a little too conveniently placed to seem fully human.
Strangely, Jonze doesn’t explore the parallels between Theodore and his silicon companion. Samantha is programmed to imitate and then learn human emotion. As a writer for a website called Beautiful Handwritten Letters.com that appears to have discovered the final frontier of outsourcing, Theodore spends his days composing deeply personal letters between people he’s never met. He says proudly of one couple, “I’ve been writing their letters since they met eight years ago.” Both he and Samantha are imitating life, and doing it well. But there’s a limit to how far this can go, no matter how long Theodore spends talking to the voice in his ear as they go on hikes and even double dates. While it’s clear that this is a story that must end in tears, Jonze takes a more optimistic approach that becomes harder to swallow as the film drifts along to its fuzzy non-conclusion.
In Her, Jonze explores some frontiers on the silicon and carbon lifeform divide that few other filmmakers have been able to tackle coherently. That he’ll be able to make at least part of an audience take Samantha and Theodore’s relationship seriously is no small feat. But there’s also a dangerous naivete here, as though Theodore really just needed a digital friend and lover purring in his ear to solve all his problems set him right. Given what we see of Theodore’s frosty and stumbling interactions with other people, there’s simply no app for fixing what’s wrong with him.