Those who thought Joaquin Phoenix had quit acting to try his hand at the rap game should think again. He has upped the ante with his acting since the 2008 hoax and gives a riveting performance as Theodore Twombly in Spike Jonze’s dramedy and 21st century love story, Her. The film succeeds at both emotionally engaging its audience and providing unnerving social commentary.
Her takes place in an era marked by technological dependency not too unlike present day; every passerby shown is in his or her own tech-fueled world, chattering away on hands-free devices. Theodore is the poster boy for this digital immersion. The movie opens with him at work at a company called beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, talking into an advanced speech recognition system. The computer transcribes what he says into “handwritten,” personalized letters for others’ loved ones.
He does this for people who can’t express their own feelings to those closest to them, and does this well. Paradoxically, he was unable to provide emotional support in his own marriage and is hurting from an imminent divorce from his lifetime love, Catherine (Rooney Mara). His sadness is almost tangible, as he frequently reflects on their good memories while miserable-looking and alone.
The only thing that masks Theodore’s solitude is his constant use of technology. He goes home to a modern high-rise condo in the dense, futuristic city of Los Angeles. He plays an augmented reality video game that features a cute yet profane little avatar. Before bed, he casually has cybersex with such women as SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig), who strangely has a dead cat asphyxiation fetish.
Theodore further submerges into the world of digital numbness when he purchases an artificially intelligent operating system with a consciousness. He gives his OS a female identity and, thus, breathes life into the sultry and self-aware “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The OS has the ability to evolve and develop intellectually at an unprecedented rate.
Theodore and Samantha communicate as if two humans. They flirt and eventually fall in “love.” They even consummate their relationship with an uncomfortable auditory sex scene devoid of any imagery (the screen fades to black). However, it is difficult to shake the feeling that Theodore is actually alone during a majority of the film despite interacting with Samantha and various forms of virtual reality. This loneliness becomes more prevalent as Samantha realizes that she can exceed the many limits of human existence and the relationship begins to unravel.
Her is smart, gloomy, funny and surprisingly relatable. The scenes with Paul (Chris Pratt) and Amy (Amy Adams) provide much-needed, uplifting human interaction. The film illuminates the human desire to be loved and to stave off loneliness. It shows that despite modernization, the human condition remains. It then brings into the picture technology so complex that it can serve to potentially satisfy all of our needs with a simple installment. The audience is left to decide whether that is a good or bad thing.