In an age when technology has the ability to bring the world closer than ever at a faster pace than ever witnessed before, mankind seems to still be drifting further and further apart – especially when it comes to romance. That problem is brought to vivid life in the new movie “Her,” in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who falls in love with his computerized operating system.
I realize that that last sentence is perhaps one of the strangest I’ve ever written, but in this new film by writer-director Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”), Phoenix plays Ted, a guy living in a near-future Los Angeles who is struggling through a painful divorce that he can’t quite bring himself to finalize. Trapped in loneliness as he wanders the cold streets of the giant city around him, Ted spends his days as a writer of emotional special-occasion letters for other people who pay his company to have their most personal notes written for them professionally.
Ted stumbles across a kiosk selling operating systems – the small devices that power computers – that are programmed to speak conversationally through artificial intelligence. While the independently smart and talking computer HAL 9000 turned on its human supervisors in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Ted’s new system – named Samantha - opens a new world of intelligent and witty conversation to him, courtesy of the sultry and expressive voice of Scarlett Johannson.
As he retreats into a series of deep conversations with Samantha, Ted finds himself realizing that he’s more attracted to and interested in “her” than he is any normal human female. And Samantha’s intelligence and emotional depths grow by leaps and bounds, leading them to fall in love and Ted admitting he’s now in a romantic relationship with what is essentially a smartphone.
This may sound like a strange plot, and it is. But it is also highly intelligent, unique, incredibly romantic and very funny, and the fact that Jonze and Phoenix are able to pull it off in a believable and richly emotional and thoughtful way is some sort of miracle.
On the surface, “Her” is essentially science fiction, but to label it that way is doing both the movie and millions of moviegoers a disservice. Jonze was inspired to create the film due to his divorce from fellow filmmaker Sofia Coppola, and it marks the first feature film that he wrote himself after prior collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and adapting Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book “Where The Wild Things Are.”
“Her” is his first full-length movie for adults since “Adaptation” in 2002, and it is clear that it is a well-conceived labor of love for Jonze. I’ve seen “Her” twice now and found it mesmerizing on both occasions, with the second time deepening my appreciation after my first viewing already thoroughly impressed me.
But the most amazing thing in the movie is how Phoenix and Johannson make it work, with Phoenix offering his most charming and well-rounded performance to date and Johannson working the entire spectrum of emotion solely with her voice.
On a moral note, while “Her” is a thoroughly classy production with heartfelt emotions and a whole lot of brains behind it, there are some notes of caution for discerning viewers. There are about 30 F words, but those mostly come from a meanspirited animated character in a video game who yells at Ted when he plays it wrong. A bigger issue is a phone sex scene that is played against a dark empty screen as Ted and Samantha talk their way through some heavy breathing, but at least Jonze left the visuals to the imagination and any honest exploration of a love story between a man and a computerized device should be excused for not having a traditional wedding in it anyway.
Beyond that, there is a graphically audible phone sex scene prior to Ted falling for Samantha in which an unknown woman loudly begs Ted to engage in some very bizarre sex acts with her that are of course not actually acted upon , just mentioned. Finally, a strongly sensual scene in which Samantha has invited a woman who has offered to be a human sex surrogate on behalf of Samantha engages in some heated (yet clothed) foreplay with Ted. But he resists the urge to have sex with her, and that decision is a crucial turning point to many of the film’s rich explorations of the nature of true love.
Rarely has a modern film offered so much to think about regarding the existence of love and how our connections to other humans are endangered in our ever more computerized society. Beneath its sweeping and sad romantic nature lies a powerful message that if we don’t look up from our smartphones and away from our computers and TV screens, someday we may not be able to find each other at all.
“Her” is appropriate and highly recommended viewing for adults who can handle its immoral elements.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.