Writer/director Spike Jonze has given us some of the most creatively ambitious films (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) of recent years and Her is yet another bravura work of imagination that makes many of today’s mainstream American movies seem pedestrian in comparison.
Set in an unspecified near future, this is a study of loneliness and isolation in a faceless metropolis and the human need (and desire) for contact and love. Our everyman hero is Theo (a superb Joaquin Phoenix – please, please don’t give up the acting!) who writes intimate letters for other people in a cubicle in an office where everyone else also sits alone in cubicles before going home to an empty (but rather gorgeous) apartment.
Theo is getting a divorce and finds sexual intimacy over the phone with anonymous individuals, but his life is totally transformed when he buys a new computer operating system that becomes not only his PA, best friend and counsellor, but also his lover.
Samantha (voiced like a huskily purring sex kitten by Scarlett Johansson) is every woman Theo has ever wanted; he feels he bonds with her more perfectly than he can ever do with an actual, living, breathing human being, even though it is clear to the audience that his equally lonely next door neighbour (a lovely, nuanced performance from Amy Adams) is just right for him.
So, he takes her on dates and holidays, he talks to her day and night and he becomes increasingly anxious if she is offline even for a matter of hours. At the beginning it seems Samantha feels exactly the same as Theo does, but she is a self-aware artificial intelligence and as time progresses she discovers there is another world out there; not of humans and their uncertainties and doubts, but a cyber world of other AIs who are learning and growing just as she is.
Unfortunately, it becomes clear that having taken this wonderfully novel premise and running with it right up to the finishing line, Spike Jonze really doesn’t know what to do with it at the end.
What is, up until then, an absolutely clear and confident vision gets a little murky and unfocused and slightly whimpers out at the finale. But this is a minor hiccup in a film that is funny, poses really important questions about the human psyche and our need for contact in a world where we increasingly interact with others at one remove via computers and machines, and leaves you wondering; will there come a time in the future where our reliance on computers becomes complete only for us to discover they don’t actually want or need us at all?