Ghost in the Machine

Melissa Anderson on Spike Jonze’s Her

Spike Jonze, Her, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 120 minutes. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix).

Set in the near future—perhaps ten years, ten months, or ten minutes from now—Spike Jonze’s Her follows the cathexis humans have expended on their tech gadgets through to its logical next step: falling in love with them. Jonze’s fourth feature (and the first for which he has written an original script) is neither a simple lamentation about our overly mediated lives nor a gooey exploration of loneliness, but a perceptive reflection on the need for—and folly of—attachment.

Her traces the relationship that blossoms between flesh-and-blood Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson), the voice of OS1, billed as “not just an operating system [but] a consciousness.” Recently divorced, Theodore, once a writer for the LA Weekly, now composes missives for, a service for those wishing to outsource the articulation of their deepest affections. (The voice-generated calligraphy used for these messages resembles that found in the paintings of the artist who shares Theodore’s surname.) “Play melancholy song,” this mournful man, inserting an earbud that looks like a tiny wine cork, commands after leaving the office. He circulates among scores of others, likewise issuing imperatives to devices, in a city simultaneously recognizable and fantastic: The metropolis is a composite of location shooting in Los Angeles and Shanghai.

As suggested by the artisanal quality of his earphone, many of Theodore’s accessories are themselves an amalgam of past, present, and future. His pants—high-waisted wool trousers—resemble those worn by extras in Paramount productions of the 1940s. With its wooden veneer, his smartphone calls to mind an index-card-size daguerreotype camera. This tool is always tucked into his shirt pocket, to which a large safety pin—a talisman of the punk era Theodore never lived through, perhaps, or an antique curio from a time when infants wore cloth diapers—is always affixed.

Is Theodore, who half-jokingly notes, “I can’t even prioritize between video games and Internet porn,” a big baby? Jonze’s protagonist often seems perilously close to emo caricature; he plays the ukulele in bed. But Phoenix’s performance is imbued with such genuine heartsickness that Theodore’s musings on why his marriage (to Catherine, played by Rooney Mara, seen here mostly in flashback) fell apart ring of piercing, real-life regret, not break-up bromides.

“Sometimes I think I’ve already felt everything I’m ever going to feel,” he frets to Samantha as their relationship deepens. The disembodied voice has worries of her own: “Are these feelings even real, or are they just programming?” Samantha’s existential anxieties, reflecting those of her sentient lover, might explain why she and some other OS pals create a “new Alan Watts,” the British-born Zen philosopher who died in 1973. “I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is,” Watts once said. The logic of this pensée, at once maddeningly circular and appealingly simple, is echoed near the film’s end when Samantha tells Theodore, “I’m yours and I’m not yours”—a harsh truth painfully applicable to any dyad in any year.

Her opens in limited release December 18 and nationwide January 10.