Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Artificial intelligence Siri-ously romantic in sci-fi love story

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The crafters of science fiction have often speculated about what will happen when computers and robots develop consciousness, becoming as self-aware as their masters. In many cases, the results aren't pretty. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to the TV series Battlestar Galactica, and such lesser films as Colossus: The Forbin Project and Demon Seed, the coming era of artificial intelligence long has been seen as a time when machines will turn on their makers.

Director/writer Spike Jonze has a different idea. In the languidly enjoyable romantic drama Her, a lonely young man falls head over keyboard in love with his computer's operating system. Mind you, it's not just any operating system but one designed to be empathetic with humans, and has Scarlett Johansson as its Siri-with-sex-appeal voice. Who could resist?

Certainly not Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a copy writer in a near-future where a smoggy, skyscraper-dotted Los Angeles looks suspiciously like a cross between a Chinese megalopolis (the film was partially filmed in Shanghai) and the Apple corporate campus. Theodore earns his living writing poetic Hallmark-style homilies for an online service aimed at consumers who want to send a handwritten letter without putting in the emotional effort.

While Theodore can summon romantic notions for others, his own love life is stuck in neutral since a split with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Enter the latest upgrade in artificial intelligence, a computer operating system that can take on a human personality and voice while interacting with the user as a friend, not an appliance.

Theodore's OS takes the name Samantha, and while at first she does what a computer might be expected to do -- reads his emails to him, for example -- the two begin a subtle flirtation that grows into something more. What at first seems wildly improbable blooms into a sweet, warm and low-key love story.

Even though Johansson is never seen, she still manages to convey a sense of falling in love -- no easy feat. Phoenix delivers his least mannered performance, fully becoming a guy for whom life seems to be passing him by.

Jonze (Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) isn't the first to put a positive spin on the rise of the machines, but Her may be its most romantic incarnation. It's also a not-so subtle commentary on the difficulties of relationship communication in the here and now.

He also deserves credit for not going the route of science-fiction cliché. Instead of chrome, steel and tyranny, his vision of the future resonates with slightly washed-out warm colours and fabrics, while everyone seems too vaguely blissed out to have any strong politics. The subtle, minimalist score from indie-rockers the Arcade Fire only adds to that sensibility.

But the questions raised by those earlier nightmarish filmic visions of a society increasingly dependent on computers are still here in the more dreamy Her, whispering in the background, and this is where the film derives its tension and payoff.

Samantha may be more alluring and sexy than 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL 9000, but that doesn't make her any more compatible.

-- Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2014 D6

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