It is common to hear from sci-fi artists — writers, filmmakers, whatever — that science fiction isn't about the future. It's about our fears, anxieties, and hopes for our present time. In 2013, two years after Apple released Siri, Spike Jonze smudged that notion with a sci-fi romance about our near future that eerily got it all right, our existential crises included. At the same time, its vision of the future is soft, sentimental, and achingly wistful.
Her, a science fiction romance starring a lonely Joaquin Phoenix who falls in love with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, is the one movie you need to watch before it leaves Netflix on July 28.
In Her, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a depressed man in near-future Los Angeles. Anxious over his divorce and aimless in his job as a writer of personal letters, Theodore buys a breakthrough product: A virtual assistant with an advanced artificial intelligence, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Though an operating system who lives in his gadgets, Samantha is the first "person" Theodore can have a meaningful conversation and express feelings with. As the two fall in love, they question the authenticity of their relationship.
The most remarkable thing about Her is its warm illustration of a cold future. Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema avoided the color blue to disassociate from common science fiction visual tropes. “Modern is often very sleek and very stark, but we didn’t really want that," Van Hoytema told Uproxx in 2014, calling the film's future is "soulful and warm and tactile."
But beyond colors, Her cuts deep because of its earnest romance between a man and his OS. For that, Her is perhaps the most emotionally relatable movie and maybe the scariest movie of the 2010s.
Though the proliferation of our smartphones and smart homes haven't resulted in widespread marriages to Siri, our dependence on said devices to communicate is foundational to 21st-century living. Especially in a pandemic. In a time when staying away from others and denying ourselves touch and intimacy is essential to survival, Her romanticizes that very thing, and it does so with a hint of darkness.
"You're dating your computer?" says Theodore's ex-wife Catherine, played by Rooney Mara, a hint of disbelief and disgust in her tone. Theodore immediately goes on the defensive and protests, his voice cracking. "She's not just a computer. She's her own person."
Over a tense "We're divorced now" lunch, Her also reveals itself as a satire of male-centric romance stories. Joaquin Phoenix's Her is lonely and sad, sure, but there happens to be a reason his marriage crumbled. The film is wise to reveal what few romantic dramas written by men dare to admit: The guy sucks. As Catherine tells her ex-husband, "You've always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real."
Her is a movie where feelings, passion, and sex aren't just redefined, they're reprogrammed. Sex workers become surrogates for OS-human intimacy, double dates can be made up of just three people, and exclusivity is impossible when your OS lives in an interconnected network. Whether that's scary or exciting is up for you to decide, and Spike Jonze takes no real sides. As director, he just tells a love story, one that is subject to a software update.
Her is streaming now on Netflix until July 28.