To a degree, Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) presents a vintage man vs. machine conflict, primarily in Theodore’s desire for connection, which is paired with and pitted against Samantha’s ability to emote and grow internally. What distinguishes their circumstance, however, is that it exists within the fragile confines of a relationship. Jonze illustrates this unlikely romance with wry tenderness and unprecedented ambition, culminating in one of the year’s most profoundly original and affecting works of art.
Despite its perceived superficiality, their relationship is oddly authentic in its emotional investment. Theodore’s void is apparent from the movie’s opening scene, in which we see him at his job writing a series of love letters for others who might lack his knack for poetically romantic wordplay. The situation is, like his relationship with Samantha, tragically empty on the surface, yet we come to find out through a series of flashbacks featuring Theodore and his wife (Rooney Mara, Side Effects) that his longing for connection is painstakingly genuine.
Samantha remedies Theodore’s emotional cavity from the moment he installs his new operating system. She’s intriguing to him, charismatic and humanlike in her ability to converse. More importantly, she can adapt to and fulfill his needs and desires in ways that no woman can. As this unique form of artificial intelligence, Johannson’s performance covers an endlessly complex array of emotion, and she does so, remarkably, without ever making an appearance on screen.
On a broader level, Her stands in stark contrast to the ways in which we bond and our preconceived notions about how interconnected we are as a species. In many facets, the film recalls the work of frequent Jonze collaborator Charlie Kaufman, whose Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is perhaps its closest parallel. Like Eternal Sunshine, Her is a deconstruction of human desire, a masterwork of philosophical magic wrapped in a postmodern laminate. Yet where Kaufman depicts the most relatable aspects of a relationship — either good or bad — Jonze challenges the notion of tangible exclusivity altogether.
There’s a telling moment when Theodore says to Samantha, “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel, and from here on out, I’m not going to feel anything new, just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” The irony of this statement is significant in that Jonze makes us think and feel in ways we never have, calling into question the essence of love and technology’s role in its successes and failures. In this sense, Her is as sweepingly radical as anything you’re likely to see this year — the defining film of the technology-dependent world in which we now live.