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Computer Love

Movie Review: “Her” transforms a plausible future into a timely meditation on the human condition.



Spike Jonze's new offbeat drama is about a man who falls in love with his operating system. But when we meet Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), he's already attached to his computer. Like most people around him, Theodore keeps his wireless earpiece close when not in his ear. It's the near future, and its voice does everything, like a smart phone and personal computer crossed with a personal assistant. It sorts Theodore's email, plays the exact song he wants to hear and lets him know when someone important is trying to get in touch. It seems like the inevitable evolution of Siri. But it's also a symbol of Theodore's disconnection from the world. It can talk and take commands, but it can't think for itself, and it certainly can't keep him company.

Theodore could use it. He's depressed. It's been a year since he separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and his dull, repetitious existence worries his friends Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). Theodore isn't fun-loving anymore. He goes to work. He comes home. He plays an advanced full-living-room video game, and conquers sleeplessness by telling his OS (the first one) to scour chat rooms for lonely women looking to have late-night online experiences.

Enter the OS One, a new software Theodore buys one day on a whim. It boots up, asks him a few questions and introduces itself. It's Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and unlike the somewhat robotic male voice that assisted Theodore before, Samantha sounds like a real person. She — or it, you have to see the movie and decide for yourself — acts like a real person too. While the two quickly grow close, it's difficult to say she isn't, in a way. Samantha can learn, grow, adapt, and make witty conversation, just like anyone else. She can even have emotional responses.

"Her" is highly impressive in the way it creates its narrative in a physical world just beyond our own in terms of technology, but entirely recognizable. The film's future seems not only plausible, but also likely. Theodore works at a tech service that writes people's letters for them, like made-to-order Hallmark cards. What letters are doing in the same world in which people can manage their emails entirely through voice commands is a good question, but what's even more impressive about "Her" is that, although it's set in the future, it isn't about the future. It's more concerned with timeless human questions, including quite possibly the thorniest, romantic love.

While Theodore is getting to know Samantha, the film flashes back to his relationship with Catherine. We witness its "Annie Hall"-style courtship, relationship and eventual dissolution through a metronomic pulse of memories that interject during Theodore's expanding friendship with Samantha. We also watch Theodore go on a blind date, a segment that might be the film's strongest. It's so difficult for so many people to meet someone who's right for them and make it work. The date is typical, beginning beautifully and ending in disaster. Theodore goes home to talk to Samantha about it.

The underlying questions are clear and sometimes staggering: Wouldn't it be easier if a computer program — always on, always interesting, nowhere else to be — could grow to like you and be the best "person" for you? If so, what, if any, difference would there be between that artificial intelligence and a natural one? What is that difference between artificial and human if both are truly intelligent and independent?

That last question haunts the film, even the periphery. The near-future civilization Theodore lives in, the milieu Jonze and his team have created, echoes the movie's introspection. Theodore continually walks among completely disconnected people, just like him, ignoring each other while talking into their earpieces. When he tells people his girlfriend is an OS, they think nothing of it. Soon OS Ones become ubiquitous. People are so focused on their operating systems they don't look at each other anymore, much less meet each other. This near future is so pretty, so technological, and so alarming.

Funny and insightful, "Her" makes many acute observations — about the age-old conundrums of relationships with other people, and the traps we might be setting for those relationships with technology. It's difficult to fault it for not coming up with the answers. It's only human. (R) 126 min. S


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