As genre mashups go, science fiction and romantic comedy aren’t regular bedfellows. But in typically ingenious fashion, writer-director Spike Jonze (purveyor of offbeat comedies like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) has put a remarkably fresh spin on a the boy-meets-girl template: what, so the premise here goes, if the girl was Siri?
Theodore Twombly (a never-more-charming Joaquin Phoenix) is our human guide in this near-future tale. An incurable romantic, he writes bespoke love notes for an online letter-writing service, conjuring a false reality for lovers everywhere.
But he’s plagued with loneliness. Hounded by memories of his estranged wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), he lives quietly in a plush high-rise apartment overlooking a glossy city of similar high-rises, his life at a virtual standstill – until he hears about the ‘OS’ programme, a highly advanced artificially intelligent helper that can live in your mobile phone, and talk to you as if human.
It’s here that Theodore ‘meets’ Samantha (the husky voice of Scarlett Johansson). Perky, self-effacing, and with a sly sense of humour, the curiously human-like Samantha learns and evolves in the haven of Theodore’s shirt pocket, until, almost inevitably, man falls in love with machine.
The parameters of what constitutes a real relationship are suddenly thrown wide open. Samantha wonders aloud whether her feelings are real, before observing that “we’re all just matter” and that everyone, humans and robots alike, are technically the same age – i.e., 13.7billion years old.
Concurrently, Theodore undergoes a painful divorce with Catherine, and his best friend Amy (Amy Adams) suffers the collapse of her own marriage. Where Catherine is emotional, volatile, and cold, and Amy’s husband shallow and pedantic, Samantha has a lust for life and learning, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Are the fragility of human relationships even a match for an artificial intelligence “untethered by space and time”?
These are huge questions smuggled in under the guise of a sweet and deceptively straightforward love story, and it’s extraordinary how well a balance is kept. Weighty musings on existence are expertly tempered with the simple and intimate dramatics of romance.
And while there’s a satirical edge to it, Her is also blissfully earnest. Though it ponders our over-reliance on technology, its cynicism of the future is gentle at best. In place of the usual sci-fi paranoia, there’s sunny Californian optimism in every frame. Aided expertly by Hoyte van Hoytema’s glistening cinematography, it revels in the honeymoon of a new love as much as it cautions technology’s tightening grip.
Her explores our ever-shifting relationship with technology, but it’s what it says about our relationships with each other that’s most striking. As an affirmation of our humanity, Spike Jonze has made something quite unique.