The concept of what love is becomes infinitely complicated the moment you introduce the two subjects of its existence. Any two individuals who fall in love must confront the basic fact that their perception of the other, and their reasons for falling in love, may be subject to thoughts and contexts of which they themselves are not aware. Might the luminous quality of your lover’s eyes mitigate in your mind some of the other qualities which you would otherwise find unlikeable? Does their scent or the curve of their neck decimate whatever logical faculties you might otherwise use to discredit them as a match? The question of what love means and how we experience it on an emotional and cerebral level is made impossible by the physical mechanics of our primal existence, creating a battle of instinct versus consciousness that often forms the backbone of most love stories.
What makes you so different, Her, is that you find a way to strip away the baser levels of love, allowing the illogical mental processes of attraction to take center stage, leaving the more easily conveyed aspects of physical attraction to wither in the dark. In this way you are able to create a more purely intellectual glimpse at the mystery of romance, while at the same time delivering a pure emotional journey, complete with characters in whom we can fully invest on a level far below skin deep.
You achieve this seemingly impossible goal through a clever and timely conceit. Your story takes place in an unspecified future wherein consumer level operating systems have been given the gift of artificial intelligence. Through a series of small moments that illustrate character as much as society, we see how mobile and desktop technology has become fully and flawlessly integrated, and is primarily accessed through voice commands and hand motions. There is an intuitiveness to the use of technology in these early scenes that fully sets the stage for the seismic shift to come. OS One, the artificially intelligent operating system, enters a market wherein people are already using colloquial dialogue to work their computers. As such, the introduction of a personality into the equation is allowed to occupy the forefront of their wonder. A crude analogy would be if you told your dog to stay, and one day he asked if you had a preference for sitting or lying down.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works for a company that sends personalized messages in handwritten style between friends and family and couples. He speaks words of unimpeded love and longing all day long into his computer, and then returns to his empty apartment, where he plays video games and has anonymous lonely chats with random strangers online. Then, almost on impulse (and thanks to a cannily plausible marketing campaign) he buys OS One. After a brief calibration exercise he is introduced to Samantha (Scarlet Johannson), his new personal computer.
In world where most people walk in a constant state of inner-monologue with their computers anyway, Theodore has no reason not to immediate enter into an easy-going relationship with “someone” who he never sees. The only difference between this voice and the disembodied voice of some stranger in a chat room is that this voice is kind, understanding, and eager to help him and to explore the world he inhabits. The more he and Samantha talk, the more she falls in love with his world, and the more that he falls in love with her view of his world.
The startling thing about your story is that it could turn into a kind of techno-terror parable about the incipient loss of our humanity as we become more and more accustomed to dealing with machines, yet it never does. While there is an oddity to Theodore’s growing attraction to Samantha, it is a symptom of his deep-seated desire to be close to another consciousness that drives his romantic entanglement with her. To our modern eyes, technology takes the place of having to understand and interact with another person, but in the world of your story technology simply becomes another person with whom to forge a connection. Of course some people don’t understand, and we can understand their reticence when they hear the truth, but this is the same as with any relationship.
Herein lies your greatest strength. The futurism in your tale is so subtle and so graceful that it becomes something understood almost innately, as though we ourselves were living in it. Giant leaps in consciousness or social normality are gifted out anecdotally, and while they seem great to us in the audience they are treated as just another novel step in the evolution of technology by your characters.
All of this helps to make your central romance truly affecting. The oddity of the ‘other’ whom Theodore falls in love with is never lost, but it becomes more cerebral than corporeal. We root for their continued happiness because we can see that they are truly both capable of happiness. Our remove from Samantha in terms of physical state allows us to investigate her growth and discovery in a way we could never hope to examine our own.
Of course all of this fawning over the inherent idea and execution of the discourse of the same shouldn’t distract from all of the myriad concrete successes also present in you. Your actors, from Phoenix as the wounded, soulful Theodore, to Amy Adams as his neighbor and friend, and even to the brief parts played by Olivia Wilde and Chris Pratt are note-perfect. The production design and cinematography create a beautiful, familiar and yet alien world for us to live in with our characters.
Without a single flaw in your design or execution to distract us, the entirety of your being coalesces into a divine whole, a moving and poignant examination of the evolution of love, both on an intimate personal level and on a grander, more societal scale. The journey Samantha takes with Theodore becomes a speculative leap of artistic imagination, and a microcosm of the present truth of falling, and trying to stay, in love.
Consumed with affection,
Brian J. Roan