The crafters of science fiction often have speculated about what will happen when computers and robots develop consciousness, becoming as self-aware as their masters. In many cases, the results aren’t pretty. From “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the recent TV series “Battlestar Galactica,” and such lesser films as “Colossus: The Forbin Project” and “Demon Seed,” the coming era of artificial intelligence long has been seen as a time when machines will turn on their makers.
Director/writer Spike Jonze has a different idea. In the languidly enjoyable romantic drama “Her,” a lonely young man falls head over keyboard in love with his computer’s operating system. Mind you, it’s not just any operating system but one designed to be empathetic with humans, and has Scarlett Johansson as its Siri-with-sex-appeal voice. Who could resist?
Certainly not Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). He earns his living writing poetic Hallmark-style homilies for an online service aimed at consumers who want to send a handwritten letter without putting in the emotional effort.
While Theodore can summon romantic notions for others, his own love life is stuck in neutral since a split with his wife. Enter the latest upgrade in artificial intelligence, a computer operating system that can take on a human personality and voice while interacting with the user as a friend, not an appliance.
Theodore’s OS takes the name Samantha, and while at first she does what a computer might be expected to do, the two begin a subtle flirtation that grows into something more. What at first seems wildly improbable blooms into a sweet, warm and low-key love story.
Even though Johansson is never seen, she still manages to convey a sense of falling in love. Phoenix delivers his least-mannered performance, fully becoming a guy for whom life seems to be passing him by.
Jonze (“Adaptation,” “Where the Wild Things Are”) isn’t the first to put a positive spin on the rise of the machines, but “Her” may be its most romantic incarnation. It’s also a not-so-subtle commentary on the difficulties of relationship communication in the here and now. Samantha may be more alluring and sexy than “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” HAL 9000, but that doesn’t make her any more compatible.