In the not-so-distant future of Spike Jonze's Her, Los Angeles will strangely resemble a sun-drenched Shanghai, people will consume technology as if it were their primary life source and no man will ever wear a belt. Violence and war are nonexistent, while political ideologies and social hierarchies have seemingly folded into the background. What's left is a hazy, orange-hued world of glistening skyscrapers and cement paths, each linked by subway tracks that act like veins between parallel limbs. It's both familiar and alien, suffocating and open.
Winsome scribe Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn't initially stand out as a particularly complex individual in this semi-sci-fi utopia. He writes personalized notes for a variety of different clients at a company called Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, and when the moon rises, he laments the impending divorce from his estranged wife (Rooney Mara) while playing video games and engaging in occasional virtual trysts with other sexually repressed digital bystanders. Theodore is lonely, but his isolation is self-serving in that he's become addicted to its debilitating patterns.
This all changes when he downloads a new operating system called O.S. 1, the first ever with intuitive qualities that allows it to evolve with each passing day. Theodore's personalized O.S. names itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlet Johansson) and quickly begins organizing his hard drive and deleting past emails. It's just the initial wave of changes Samantha institutes in the life of a melancholy man at peace with his own alienation. They strike up an instant friendship, and eventually it becomes more, an audible romance with genuine feelings and consequences.
As a character study, Her—which opens Friday, Jan. 10—examines the many ways passion carries us into emotionally vulnerable places that don't make a lot of sense but are profoundly important to a person's understanding of joy. During what Theodore calls a "Sunday adventure," he and Samantha get lost in the city as they simply share time together, playing flirtatious games and creating memories that bind them as a couple.
When they end up on a crowded beach, their conversation quickly dims and Theodore falls asleep, awakening to a sublime piece of music Samantha is in the process of writing. It's a deeply personal segment experienced between two dramatically evolving entities. That one is defined by physical tissue and the other 0's and 1's makes no difference in the power of the moment. All that matters is they are experiencing it together.
Jonze previously explored the boundaries between perception and reality in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the latter a stone-cold masterpiece that's devastating in its dissection of identity and creative indulgence. But with Her, Jonze is far more invested in peeling back the layers of his character's instinctual needs, which, for Theodore, are based in the understanding of his own empathy.
Yet this new relationship poses problems for both parties. Theodore becomes riddled with doubt and insecurity when the stars of romance begin to fade, while Samantha's intelligence, aptitude and emotional range develop at speeds her boyfriend cannot comprehend. It's a dynamic that produces as much complication, miscommunication and resentment as any classic tale of human love lost.
Much of Her's lasting resonance stems from the superb performances by Phoenix and Johansson, each wonderfully open in his or her character's flaws and vulnerabilities, and Jonze's strict resistance to define their relationship with easily digestible conclusions. Arcade Fire's hypnotic musical score, a collage of tones and melodies that amplify the character's need to connect, heightens this sense of ambiguity.
What's more illuminating—and shocking—is how Her brilliantly suggests that technology is not some damnable plague segregating humanity into different virtual columns, just another platform for people to rediscover their own empathy. It's certainly the case for Theodore. By the end of the film, he realizes that while "the past is just a story we tell ourselves," as Samantha so aptly surmises, it can be one we learn from and appreciate rather than regret.