Scarlett Johansson seems to be making a name for herself with otherworldly roles. In the newly-released Under The Skin she plays an alien in human form with a blank, almost robotic expression; in the Oscar-winning Her she plays an operating system in voice only yet somehow seems all the more human.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix in a much softer role than we’re used to, Her is set in a near future LA that’s clean and colourful, as if sleekly designed by Apple. In this future our lives are controlled by a voice activated ear piece and smart phone-esque tablet, reading out emails, playing music and even chatting in Internet sex chat rooms. Phoenix plays Theodore, a somewhat antisocial employee at a bespoke personal letter writing company and hopeless romantic, small and alone in the expansive cityscapes. He’s also in a vulnerable position having recently split from his wife (Rooney Mara). Urged on by an advertisement, he upgrades his ear piece to a new AI operating system, the OS1 (voiced by the seductive Johansson), that’s personalised to his tastes and evolves over time. Less a computer and more a human voice directly in his ear, Theodore and the sentient “Samantha” strike up an unusual relationship that quickly becomes more than just a friendship.
In Samantha, Theodore finds the embodiment of womanly perfection that was missing in his marriage. Each of the real women he meets are dysfunctional: his ex-wife and childhood sweetheart Catherine (Mara), his hyper-sexual blind date (Olivia Wilde), and his friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her failing marriage. Yet what constitutes the perfect woman? Is it the super-mum in the video games he plays, the attractive beauty willing to have sex on a first date, or the bodiless voice of friendship in his ear? Samantha, too, has her hang-ups – over time she begins to question her existence and what it means to be human.
Is it dysfunction that makes us human, flaws and all? And is there anything more dysfunctional than being in a relationship with a synthetic being? Is his relationship with Samantha any less real because of her lack of body, any less of a meaningful relationship? One particular scene sees the couple hiring a surrogate body in some sort of perverted threesome. It doesn’t go well. This is a partnership that works predominantly in the mind. Is physical form even necessary?
Theodore has his doubts but he ultimately learns to accept the unconventional, his relationship with Samantha catharsis after his failed marriage. Love comes in many forms, we must take the good with the bad, whether human or synthetic and however they may end. Who would you choose to share your life with?
It may seem like a saccharine message, but it’s testament to Spike Jonze’s exceptional screenplay (for which the film won an Oscar) and the touching performances that this bizarre conceit seems so believable. Yet is it that far gone? In reality, Samantha is only one step on from Apple’s Siri. Science-fiction meets tender love story could be the future of our relationships and we have this beautiful and thought-provoking film to thank.