By: M Stuart Persson
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle aged employer at “Beautiful Handwritten Letters,” dictates to his computer as the words spill gently from the machine. In an undisclosed time in the near future, Theodore is providing a service for people either unable or unwilling to write their own love letters.
However, Theodore’s own love life bears no resemblance to the letters he writes. His late nights are spent in chat rooms with people seeking anything but love, his days spent playing video games. Haunted by memories of his ex wife, he seeks companionship in the purchase of OS 1 (voiced by Scarlett Johansen), “the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system.” He determines the operating system’s gender, giving birth to Samantha, “Her.”
She helps Theodore organize his emails, and while doing so starts to become alarmingly human…for a computer, that is. She begins to get involved in his life, pushing him to go on a date. When it goes sour, he returns home to the only “person” he has. Samantha begins to fill the void in his life, as the two develop a bond thought to be shared only between humans.
At first the situation seems antisocial, maybe nerdy, perhaps just plain wrong even. The familiarity between Theodore and Samantha grows from friendship to love as he carries his phone in his front pocket showing her his world from a webcam. All seems well until a meeting with his wife to sign divorce papers. His “girlfriend” comes up in the conversation, and his wife’s reaction is anything but supportive. Theodore defends Samantha by saying that she’s not “just a computer.” Having watched their relationship grow, the viewer wants to side with him. The question remains: Is she just a computer?
The film shows a connected yet isolated world where people walk around talking to themselves or somebody on bluetooth (one can never be too sure). Of course, don’t be surprised to see this when you ride the L today or walk into any scenario anywhere.
Luckily the future is bright, literally. Each scene is painted with vibrant tones that echo the complexity of Theodore and Samantha. Even the walls of the subway station are colorfully tiled. Layered with music performed by Arcade Fire, the overall aesthetic presents a world begging to be explored, yet too disconnected from our world to be fully understood.
Joaquin Phoenix’s emotionally-involved performance makes it pretty difficult not to sympathize with a person in love with their computer (especially one with the voice of Scarlett Johansen). Theodore’s complex emotions are top of mind as he spends his days emoting through his love letters while the audience sees flashbacks of carefree moments with his wife.
Samantha, in spite of her lack of physicality, can be felt in every conversation by her soft and understanding voice. Eager to learn, feel, and exist, she does just that—delivering true chemistry with Theodore that transcends what humans call touch. By the time the credits roll you have forgotten that Samantha is an operating system. For some it’s an emotional journey that may be unwanted but needed, painful but rewarding. It may very well be the first time a computer makes you cry.
The film stands out in terms of concept, acting, and aesthetic, providing a hopeful and sometimes heartbreaking look into the future. Not only will it change the way you look at SIRI forever, but it will cause you to take a deep look into your personal ideas of love and relationships. It challenges the way you think while easing the tension with sometimes strange and explicit dialogue (Theodore’s video games and late night escapades).
Fans of romantic comedies and sci-fis will probably be confused to see each other in line for this one, but by the end fans of both genres will come together to rave about the most unique film experience of 2014 so far.