It’s easy to imagine the elevator pitch for Spike Jonze’s latest: a man falls in love with his computer operating system. Improbable, yes, but Jonze treats the affections of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, a manchild disguised in wool slacks) as perfectly natural rather than transgressive, forcing a comparison between the carefully crafted tomorrow of the film and our present-day world that makes the story all the more resonant.
The facts are these: in a not-so-distant-future Los Angeles, Theodore upgrades his OS from the generic to “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, in her trademark tones), artificially intelligent and with a constantly evolving understanding of the world. Her job is to keep track of Theo’s affairs, but Samantha is interested in more, being curious about Twombly as her link to the corporeal. He’s happy to comply, showing her his world as if it were new to him too.
What follows is a relationship drama that’s complicated, meaty, and challenging in its implications. Theodore and Samantha’s problems are normal—affections don’t always align, or the two project too much onto each other—and singular: for instance, the fact that Samantha has no physical body. When Rooney Mara makes a sharp appearance as Theo’s ex-wife, her incredulousness at his inability to date a real woman is both a relief and off base. Her is told from Theo’s perspective, and all he can ever really know about Samantha is that she’s infinite—and when it comes to another person, what’s more real than that?