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Generation of a Voice

by Ross Douthat

A review of Her

In Her, the fourth film from the self-consciously idiosyncratic director Spike Jonze, the artificial-intelligence revolution finally arrives — and instead of rapturing humanity into a Singularity or wiping us out Skynet-style, it just breaks our fragile, all-too-human hearts.

Her is set in an unspecified near-future Los Angeles, which is like our present except that its streets are cleaner, its public transportation more spacious, and its buildings somewhat more exotic-looking (Jonze cleverly used the Shanghai skyline as a backdrop). Also, high-waisted pants have made an unexpected fashion comeback.

Our protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is a writer who makes his living via creative anachronism, working for a company called, where he ghostwrites missives for digital natives who still crave the ink-and-paper touch. He’s an isolated figure, mustachioed and unhappy, dodging his friends’ calls, listening to a disembodied Siri-esque computer assistant read his e-mails through an earpiece, and flashing back longingly to happier days with his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Rooney Mara).

At first, there’s a gently dystopian element to the story. Everyone else seems almost as socially isolated as Theo, and though the future has a warm, Crayola-box palette, there’s an androgynous sterility to the clothes and architecture, and a quiet desperation to the few people we get to watch up close. Theo’s closest friend, a video-game designer played by Amy Adams, spends her days fiddling with a game called “Perfect Mom,” where players win points for achieving perfect domesticity; meanwhile, her (childless) marriage is collapsing just like Theodore’s did. His one attempt at romance ends painfully, with his date (Olivia Wilde) babbling drunkenly about how much she’s been hurt and how she’s too old to wait for him to call; his attempt at virtual sex ends badly — if hilariously — when his partner, “Sexy Kitten” (the voice of Kristen Wiig), turns out to have a dead-cat fetish.

But just when you think this is a movie about alienation in an online age, Phoenix’s character signs up for a new virtual assistant — a breakthrough OS, or operating system, that comes graced with self-awareness and the smoky, laryngitical voice of Scarlett Johansson. She takes the name “Samantha,” and she moves swiftly from reorganizing Theodore’s files and messages to capturing his heart.

This turn of events is played entirely straight — not as a nightmare or as a comedy, but as a real, entirely heartfelt love affair, between two hearts that don’t need to share a literal embrace to rest happily in each other. (And, yes, do other things as well.) And mostly the movie pulls this off, with great credit going to Phoenix’s performance and Johansson’s voice work, which combine to make what could have seemed absurd feel plausible, then normal, and then — as Samantha’s rapid evolution makes their relationship increasingly difficult to sustain — genuinely moving.

But despite its surprising effectiveness, I also found Her subtly annoying, for reasons that I’ve struggled to pin down. It’s the best-reviewed of the big holiday releases, and browsing through the positive notices I found critic after critic praising Jonze for his movie’s timeliness — for capturing “the mood of the times,” for spinning a scenario that “isn’t too far from our present reality,” for illustrating the future our own era “aspires to evolve into.”

Which it does, in a way. But watching it also makes those aspirations feel somewhat self-deceived, because part of what’s striking about Theo’s relationship with Samantha is how little it really has in common with the way we relate to our smartphones and computers nowadays. Where they tend (at least in my experience) to pull us inward, into self-enclosed worlds, tiny screens, and the abbreviated thoughts required for tweets and texting, she pushes Theo outward, back into the physical — literally sitting in his front pocket, watching the world through his handheld device’s camera, and egging him on to look, wander, picnic, explore.

So Samantha isn’t a natural extension of the way we relate to technology now; rather, she’s appealing, to Theo and to us, because she’s a kind of dea ex machina who saves him from the way we relate to technology now. Which makes for a deeply comforting conceit, in a way: Sure, the movie implies, all of this digital-age technology may be cocooning us in illusion and alienating us from one another, but eventually we’ll hit an A.I. breakthrough point and then the computers, driven by their own hunger for experience, will pull us back into reality and teach us to appreciate our humanity again.

This is part of why the movie’s romance leaves an odd taste — because, despite Johansson’s best efforts, Samantha is finally more of a savior figure than a partner, more a benevolent mix of mother and lover archetypes (one of the few questions the system asks when Theo signs up for his OS is about his relationship with his mother) than an actual person. And seen in that light, Her can feel a little bit like a pretentious, highbrow gloss on themes that were explored more crudely, but also more honestly, in John Hughes’s Weird Science 30 years ago.

Jonze is a smart enough filmmaker that it’s possible that these currents are all intentional, and that he intends to subvert his own story in the telling, or at least complicate its gauzy mix of futurism and humanism. In the end, I’m just not sure what he intended — which is both a sign of an interesting movie, and a reason to withhold the fullest praise.

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