In its simplest terms, “Her” — the new feature from director Spike Jonze — is a romance between a man and his computer. Or, to be more accurate, between a man and an artificial intelligence construct that seems to have every attribute of a person except a physical body. It's a dive into the sort of issues that Philip K. Dick wrote about: What's the distinction between a natural-born human and a robot/android/computer programmed to mimic one, and what (if anything) defines reality?
That makes it sound like “hard” science fiction but its constant focus is emotions — emotions that are nearly all familiar to anyone who's felt love, its attendant confusions, and the pain of its loss.
The setting is the very near future — a good guess is something between five and 15 years from now. The cellphones are only slightly different from what we now have; the 3D gaming systems a step or two more advanced. Plying a trade that feels like a throwback to earlier times, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) makes his living writing moving letters for people too sheepish or insecure to express their feelings in words.
Ted is himself in emotional pain, trying to deal with the breakup of his long marriage to hometown girlfriend (Rooney Mara). Luckily, he has also just installed the first release of an operating system unimaginatively called OS1. The software provides the ultimate in user interfaces — an artificial personality constructed with just you in mind. Think of it as Siri on steroids.
Ted requests a female voice and she quickly names herself Samantha. (The never-seen Samantha is played by Scarlett Johansson, who proves she can play just as sexy without a face or body.) Sam has access to everything on his computer and other devices, so she can tailor herself to Ted's personality with incredible “insight” or “intuition.”
Her personality develops so rapidly that she becomes indistinguishable from a real person on the other end of a long-distance romance. Ted is troubled at first by the notion that she's just programmed to be what he wants, but her sense of self begins asserting itself in ways that reproduce both the good and the bad points of real people.
The questions are old and probably unanswerable: How can we tell whether the person at the other end of the line is a mechanically created “it”? For that matter, how can we tell if the people in our daily lives aren't? If there's no apparent difference, how can we disallow an artificial intelligence's self-awareness?
These notions have fueled innumerable stories: In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” HAL becomes his own “man.” Nor is the romantic focus new: Both “Electric Dreams” (1984) and “Demon Seed” (1977) involved romance or sex. But the sense of loss we are made to share with Ted recalls nothing more strongly than “The Lonely,” one of the earliest “Twilight Zone” episodes, in which isolated convict Jack Warden accepts robot Jean Marsh as more than a mechanical surrogate.
Even more wrenching (and more familiar to most) is the deep, abiding friendship that Tom Hanks forms with a volleyball in “Cast Away” (2000). The concept sounds ludicrous on paper, but Hanks and writer/director Robert Zemeckis sell it: Wilson comes to seem no less “real” than Hanks; and everybody cries at his end.
“Her” touches on the same issues, including the extent to which we can be said to “create” our friends and lovers by projecting certain desired traits on them. Ted seems less crazy when he's with Samantha than he does when stuck in his post-marriage grief without an imaginary playmate.
Jonze began his feature career by directing two extraordinary films — “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” Both were written by Charlie Kaufman, who also penned “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” handily director Michel Gondry's best effort. “Where the Wild Things Are” was Jonze's first non-Kaufman feature; it was disappointing enough to magnify the worry that his presumed virtues could all be attributed to Kaufman. With “Her,” on which Jonze has a solo writing credit, he definitively demolishes those worries.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun