It’s a familiar story of self-discovery and romance. Theodore is a lonely writer who can’t come to terms with his divorce — he keeps putting off signing the papers — and he’s just not interested in dating again. And then he meets Samantha. Their relationship is strictly platonic at first, but she’s smart, funny, considerate, attuned to his needs… and he falls for her, hard. She has no physical presence, of course, just a sexy Scarlett Johansson voice emanating from the smartphone-slash-supercomputer he carries around (as everyone else does in Theodore’s near-future Los Angeles). Sure, she’s an AI, but you can’t have everything.
The Movies have given us too many manic pixie dream girls, those adorably kooky perfect women whose only narrative job is to lead troubled, insecure men on a path to mature adult relationships before skipping off into the sunset. We’re meant to see those tales as sweet and idealistic. While Samantha may not be the first manic pixel dream girl (Al Pacino fell in love with a CGI “actress” in S1m0ne back in 2002), Her is something new nevertheless: a soothing, gentle science-fiction horror movie. It’s the rise of the machines as romantic dramedy, and the Singularity (the oft-speculated-upon future moment when computer intelligence bypasses humanity’s) as romantic tragedy. It’s The Terminator writ nice. And it’s all the fault of humanity as represented by one troubled, insecure man who prefers undemanding fantasy women over the real thing.
Writer-director Spike Jonze likes to play with our cinematic expectations — see also Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, for starters — so he doesn’t drop us into full-blown future-horror, though he give us plenty of hints of the quiet awfulness of Theodore’s world, which isn’t too far from our own, right from the beginning. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix: Reservation Road, Walk the Line) loves his work, at a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, and he is very good at. He is an electronic Cyrano, crafting lovely “heartfelt” missives for all occasions, from bereavement to wedding anniversaries… except unlike with Cyrano, it’s no secret to the recipient that those letters were not written by the purported sender. (Theodore comments offhandedly that in the case of one couple, he’s been writing “their” letters to each other for years.) Outsourcing your emotions is just one more service in the future service economy, and apparently one that no one gives any more thought to than they would to sending their laundry out to be done.
There’s something ineffably sad about the future Theodore lives in. His world is only the teensiest bit askew from ours, emotionally and culturally as well as visually. The fashion of everyone’s clothing and of their homes just the tiniest bit off-kilter from our own. It’s futuristic and dorky at the same time… as is the feeling that a need, and even a desire, to accommodate our fellow human beings is right on the edge of starting to seem old-fashioned. How can there be horror in the reality of Theodore’s romantic life, in which real women are too “weird” and too difficult in their own needs, when this is the baseline reality of an entire genre of (supposedly) romantic movies? At first it’s funny, when solitary yet horny Theodore calls a sex chat line one evening and has a somewhat bizarre encounter with the voice of Kristen Wiig (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), but later it’s just pathetic, when the “demands” of the blind date he is set up with (Olivia Wilde: Rush, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) are so simple and unexacting — “Please don’t fuck me and then never call me again” — and yet totally confound him and turn him off.
Enter Samantha (Johansson: Marvel’s The Avengers, We Bought a Zoo). She is a brand-new operating system for his home computer/smartphone, and she is literally programmed to create a personality for herself that is perfect for him, so that she can best organize his life and please him in every way: to anticipate his needs, to listen to all his complaints and sympathize totally, to be his friend and companion. She never has a bad word to say about him, or to him. What could be better? Except that now he doesn’t need to learn how to deal with real, flawed, idiosyncratic women… and though Jonze maintains an intimate focus on Theodore and his own small circle of friends — including flesh-and-blood couple Paul and Amy (Chris Pratt [Movie 43, Zero Dark Thirty] and Amy Adams [American Hustle, Man of Steel]) and his ex, Catherine (Rooney Mara: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network) — intimations that Theodore is far from the only man or woman falling in love with their own AIs begin to seep in. We see that new services are popping up to meet some of the unexpected needs of these new relationships, and even Theodore can’t help but start to see how inhuman, and inhumane, this brave new world is becoming.
Any suggestion that Her is offered as unironically romantic soon disappear, though that soft modesty remains. Science fiction of genuine ideas is rare enough on film, but science fiction with such a terrible underlying motif is rarer still. Could ordinary and usually benign human failings lead to the end of interpersonally connected humanity? And would we welcome it and think it a paradise?