In writer-director Spike Jonze’s Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays the man some of us might turn out to be in twenty or thirty years. Burdened by the constant bombardment of “connection” and “engagement,” Theodore Twombley is perpetually alone, at least in his own mind. Even though he knows his life is stuck in neutral, he feels too threatened by his own sorrows to make any meaningful strides in the right direction. But technology hasn’t hollowed him out. In fact, Theodore radiates empathy and compassion, even when he doesn’t know where or how to direct it.
That’s the contradiction at the heart of this marvelous film, a richly imagined exploration of the nature of relationships and a study in the futility of rejecting technological progress. Her offers a vision of the future that’s both radically different from our world and very much the same. Theodore’s central quandary – is my relationship with an artificially intelligent operating system “real”? – is just a logical extension of our own uncertainty about knowing and connecting with others. As we place our trust in manmade machines that take on lives of their own, we’re simply transferring the central questions of human existence into a more palatable outlet. In the not-so-distant future of Her, those central questions remain the same, even though they’ve evolved on the surface.