MY WEEK (June 26, 2014): A dazzling love story for the digital age

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Her
Joaquin Phoenix stars in Her

Every cloud has a silver lining.

I had a cold over the past week, so I didn’t feel up to seeing any live shows.

However, this downtime meant I finally had a chance to see Her on DVD.

The film is set in Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a heartbroken man who is reaching the end of a long divorce process.

After unfulfilling encounters with real-life women on the internet Theodore decides to purchase a new kind of operating system (OS) with artificial intelligence. After asking him a few questions, the OS is installed and introduces itself as “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

The surprisingly witty Samantha helps Theodore sort his life out and encourages him to meet other women. However, Samantha’s personality quickly evolves into something more recognisably human and she and Theodore end up falling completely in love with each other.

In the wrong hands, Her could have been a mess, but writer and director Spike Jonze shows real control over his creation. His beautifully shot film manages to be both intriguing science fiction and a truly romantic look into intimate relationships. Joaquin Phoenix, an actor I’ve never been keen on, is mesmerising. He lets audiences see Theodore’s sensitive soul, when everything about his physical appearance – odd moustache, nerdy glasses – makes it tempting to dismiss him as a freak. Scarlett Johansson, appearing only as a voice, gives a haunting performance too. At first, she’s chirpy and seems artificially optimistic, but as Samantha evolves we start to hear her joy, fear and frustration as she longs for physical and emotional intimacy with Theodore.

The narrative doesn’t take a conventional path either. Some people may want to argue that Theodore’s relationship with Samantha shows a retreat from reality. However, if anything, the romance brings Theodore out of his shell, allowing his heart to heal as he starts enjoying life again. “It’s good to be around somebody who’s excited about the world,” he says. His friends are surprisingly accepting too, happy to chat to Samantha as operating systems become part of their lives as well. Only Theodore’s bitter ex-wife dismisses his experience as “not real”.

But who is she to make that judgment? In a world where artificial intelligence can reach this level of sophistication, where exactly is the dividing line between human and machine?

It’s a bizarre idea for a movie, but Her unearths so many truths about the human condition it’s hard to know where to start.

It’s just an utterly transcendent piece of filmmaking.