Relationships are hard, particularly when your significant other is your operating system. And that’s the dilemma posed by visionary writer-director Spike Jonze in Her, his latest meditation on the human condition.
Here, Jonze probes what makes a human — that is, the sensory perception of being alive that only humans can feel. Other animals may not sit around and question their very being, but, until now, neither did computer operating systems.
The her of Her, called Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson, breaks this mold. She speaks to her commanding voice, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), in much the same way HAL talked to the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Samantha takes it further.
With his uncanny ability for creating real settings that seem otherworldly, Jonze sets his film in a recognizable near-future, one that looks now but is not now. His version of Los Angeles, filmed partially in Shanghai, has infinite skyscrapers hovering over its inhabitants, who all seem to be walking around talking to their systems, ignoring other humans and oblivious to everything except their instant communications. Obviously for Jonze, the future is now.
Theodore is a sad, mopey sort, still depressed over his impending divorce. Friends fruitlessly try to rouse him, but he stays home and plays his too-real video game while trudging along in his day job writing love letters for other people at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, an occupation that could seem real only to Jonze.
Theodore installs a new system to help run his lethargic life, being told, “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness,” which turns out to be true, as he and Samantha engage in long soulful conversations.
They become close enough for Samantha to ask, “What’s it like to be alive?” A good question, and one that echoes Lear’s plaintive “Is man no more than this?”
In this semi-surreal Jonze-world, this behavior makes sense, as Theodore’s friends accept Samantha when he tells them about his new relationship. When Her nears conclusion, it looks as though Jonze has no plausible way out of his narrative, but he comes up with a solution that, in the film’s circumstances, becomes believable.
Her touches some of the similar ground found in the films of Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, S1m0ne), another filmmaker who asks what constitutes individual identity.
The question can never be answered of course, but Her gives us plenty to think about.
Rated R, 126 minutes.