In the upcoming movie "Her," Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely tech company staffer who falls for Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). She's smart, funny and sexy, but there's a catch: Samantha is the voice of an operating system.
"Her," sometimes nicknamed "The Siri Movie," envisions a very near future in which machines have become so human that it's difficult to tell them apart. Talk about modern romance! But "Her" also tells an age-old story: Man's attempt to create artificial intelligence.
That narrative is almost a genre unto itself, with roots that run through Greek myth (Talos, the soldier made of bronze), Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and the fairy tale "Pinocchio." Modern versions date back to at least the 1950s, when artificial intelligence -- now commonly called A.I. -- became a legitimate field that blended computer science with psychology and biology. It touched on philosophy, too: After all, what is life?
Isaac Asimov's short-story collection "I, Robot" (1950) is an early example of A.I. fiction, as is the 1956 film "Forbidden Planet" (whose Robby the Robot was one of the first to have a "personality"). On television, "The Twilight Zone" presented a 1959 episode, "The Lonely," in which a man named Corry (Jack Warden) falls for a mechanical woman. Perhaps the most famous example of A.I. is HAL 9000, the calm computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968).
Generally speaking, A.I. stories end badly -- for man, machine or both. In that "Twilight Zone" installment, Corry watches his beloved reduced to a mass of twitching circuits. In the 1982 film "Blade Runner," man-made replicants develop human sentience, only to suffer spiritual agony; that theme would resurface in Steven Spielberg's "A.I.," starring Haley Joel Osment as a man-made child. More comically, in the 2002 movie "S1m0ne," a film director (AlPacino) creates a virtual actress (Rachel Roberts) who becomes so popular that she subsumes his career. And HAL, of course, tried to kill everyone. In each case, the moral seems to be that when man plays God, somebody suffers.
But Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed "Her," is not your typical storyteller. His strange, surreal movies ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") rarely go where expected. Is it possible that the human Theodore and the server-based Samantha will escape the fate that usually awaits their kind? We'll see when "Her" arrives in theaters Wednesday.