Her, from director Spike Jonze, is a supernatural tale of our most natural emotion and more than an evening's entertainment; it should inspire a full night of post-viewing conversation. To that end, Her is not only a great film, it's a cultural touchstone.
At the heart of this gentle film--and, indeed, a pretty big heart beats here--is Joaquin Phoenix as horn-rimmed Theodore Twombly, reminding us that when he's on his game, Phoenix rises to the top of his profession.
"I'm afraid I've felt everything I'm going to feel," Theodore whispers with resignation to his new lover. His rediscovered ability to share such intimacy is coaxed by the ever-accepting Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).
"I've never loved anyone the way I love you," he says gently.
"Me too," Samantha whispers back. "Now we know how."
But in fact, Samantha is more than Theodore's lover. She's his property--he purchased her OS1 software, an artificially intelligent operating system. In short order, OS1 names "herself" Samantha and she begins "living" in Theodore's head (via an ever-present earbud). Think of her as an advanced version of iPhone's Siri or your automobile's GPS; Samantha is eager and, occasionally, vulnerable. Hers is the first voice to cheerfully greet Theodore in the morning and the last sweet-nothing he hears each night. She's his assistant, advocate and, ultimately, his turn-on. Soon enough, Theodore is introducing her as his girlfriend.
The two very-real women in Theodore's life, ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and close friend Amy (Amy Adams), react quite differently to the news.
"He always wanted a wife without the challenges of a real person," says Catherine, marginalizing her ex's new romance.
On the other hand, Amy offers patience and insight into Theodore's reawakening
"I think anyone who falls in love is a freak," she assures him. "It's a crazy thing. It's like a socially acceptable form of insanity."
It's hard to believe that Her is the first feature film that Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) has directed from an original script of his own. Jonze's quite perfect screenplay has Samantha ask questions of Theodore that naturally prompt us, as an audience, to consider our own answers.
"What's it like to be alive?"
"How do you share your life with someone?"
But Her also asks us to consider the viability of artificial intelligence itself (or is it herself?). A.I. is nothing new at the movies: Everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner to A.I. Artificial Intelligence to War Games has offered cautionary tales. But in Her, we're also asked if we're prepared to upload human conditions such as joy, pain, free will and even love to the next generation of A.I.
In a chilling new book, Our Final Invention, author James Barrat warns that A.I. could be "the end of the human era."
"Right now, we're creating machines that are extremely good at playing chess or Jeopardy, or that do things like navigation or theorem proving--a bunch of tasks that used to be ours alone," Barrat writes. "Some day in the not-too-distant future, we'll create machines that are good at artificial intelligence research and development. And after that, their capabilities will accelerate dramatically."
And that's the main reason that I can't shake Her. It's a beautiful piece of drama with some of the season's best performances from Phoenix and Johansson; but Her also wants us to rethink our increasing inability to connect with one another as humans. In our cruelties, prejudices and derisiveness, we're driving one another to isolation and even, quite sadly, to artificial experiences in order to find some kind of manufactured acceptance.
Her is something very special: It's a work of brilliant conceit that reveals how perilously close each of us is to solitude. Here's hoping this Oscar-bound film inspires more human interaction. My best advice is to rush to see this movie, and please carve out a couple of hours afterwards to to have a good, old-fashioned, one-to-one conversation about Her's beguiling humanism.