Midway through "Her," two lovers experience their first quarrel. He's being crabby and cruel, picking at little flaws like the way she takes a breath before speaking. "Why do you do that?" he snaps. "I mean, it's not like you need oxygen."
Welcome to the very near future, as depicted in this strange, funny, slightly unsettling and utterly visionary film written and directed by Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich"). It's the story of Theodore, an amiable nerd played by Joaquin Phoenix, whose marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) has recently ended. But he has found Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who is bright, funny, sensitive and kind. Samantha is also, as it happens, the voice of a new operating system known as OS1.
Hold the Siri jokes: Samantha can answer emails and schedule appointments, but she also reads books, writes music and asks perceptive questions like, "What's wrong?" Hold, too, comparisons to HAL, of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Samantha may be a well-programmed illusion (made almost tangible by Johansson's lively, snuggly voice), but Theodore feels a very real attraction. So what if Samantha only "exists" in a pocket-size flip-case? So what if this requires a new definition of "sex"?
"Her" has moments of loopy humor (other voices come from Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader) and touches of cultural satire (the OS1's manipulative ad campaign looks like a Zoloft commercial). But Jonze's movie is nothing short of profound. Hoyte Van Hoytema's vivid cinematography suggests a technology-infused future, but we get the feeling that it has already arrived. Nobody here seems worried about intelligent machines conquering humanity; nobody even quibbles much about the very definition of human. "Her" goes light-years beyond science-fiction cliches. As the story progresses further into unexpected territory, "Her" sometimes feels like an out-of-body experience.
It's Theodore's supportive, nonjudgmental friend Amy (Amy Adams) who sums up this complicated movie. Trying to help Theodore work through his doubts, she asks simply, "Is it not a real relationship?" Suddenly, a great many philosophical questions seem to belong to yesterday.
PLOT In the near future, a lonely man falls in love with an operating system.
CAST Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams
BOTTOM LINE Writer-director Spike Jonze may launch a new era in science fiction with this dazzling, dizzying movie. It's a vision so compelling that it feels like an out-of-body experience.