The fact that the promotional poster for “Her” features the lone, male, mustachioed face of Joaquin Phoenix tells you most of what you need to know about this gentlyhorrific tale of the nearfuture. This is a world that very much resembles our own, but taken a little further, in terms of dealing with human-relationship issues. People still date, get married and share intimacy, but it’s also possible to outsource much of everything that puts a strain on the nerves — includingmessy emotions such as genuine love or the crushing feeling of rejection.
Why not let some other entity (i.e., a computer) deal with all that?Directed by Spike Jonze (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich”), who has an unmatched flair for exploring human identity, “Her” highlights the sincerity and kindness residing at the core of his craft. Almost all traces of cynicism have been deleted in favor of an irresistible innocence, as protagonist Theodore (Phoenix) buys, and then falls deeply in love with, an operating system that calls itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
There’s wonder and awe in Theodore’s first conversations with Samantha — so different from the relationships most of us have now with our digital devices. We think in terms of speed, accessibility, utility, but Theodore relates to Samantha like a loving son to a mother, or a pre-digital-age teenager with his first true love. And Samantha reciprocates, even though they both understand that she’s just processing his personal and biometric data — the inflections in his voice, his computer files, the way his heart is beating and so on — and responding accordingly.
That’s OK, as Theodore needs to be taken care of, without the stress of actual contact. He’s going through a divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara), whose dominant moods are thorny and bitter (though you can see Theodore has contributed much to her unhappiness), and he is in a very vulnerable place. Honestly, Samantha is good for him.
Once upon a time it was unhealthy and antisocial for men to fall in love with computerized fantasy women, but “Her” shows us this is definitely where modern relationships are headed. As Theodore begins to experience anxiety over his closeness to the artificial intelligence inhabiting his devices, the story reveals how the people around him — married friends Paul and Amy (Chris Pratt and Amy Adams) and even Catherine — are drawn to the intelligent operating systems inside their own devices. It’s like having a therapist, lover and marriage counselor rolled into a single, incredible being that resides in your smartphone.
Japan is several steps ahead of the game in this respect — in 2009, after Konami released the game “LovePlus” for the Nintendo DS, a 27-year-old Japanese guy “married” his virtual in-game girlfriend, Nene Anegasaki. And Softbank recently began selling “Pepper,” the world’s first “personal robot that reads emotions.” So one’s digital device is good enough company. Yet Theodore finds himself in the grip of an unshakable sadness. Is this what being human is all about? Watch “Her” for some answers.