A not-so-distant but definitely futuristic Los Angeles. Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sweet, sensitive thirty something guy, undergoing a mid-life crisis in a form of a civilized divorce with Catherine (Rooney Mara). As he is left alone in his modern, spacious flat, he is feeling horribly lonely. He could use a little recreational sex in his life, love too if it is only possible. Somebody with a heart as big and soft as his, similar to those squishy Valentine-gift velvet pillows, shouldn’t be left on his own for longer periods of time. It doesn’t help that Theodore works at a website called BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com, and he specializes in composing love notes for strangers to send to their spouses, friends, love interests and children on different occasions . With every sweet, funny, emotional letter he becomes more and more miserable, seeing clearly what his life could be and what it really is.
One day an ad for a new generation of intelligent OS catches his eyes. Theodore has nothing to lose – he buys it, installs it and here he goes: he is not lonely anymore. The OS, a.k.a. Samantha (played by the voice of Scarlett Johansson), a name the system chose for itself after Theo had decided it should be a female, fills the emptiness of his existence very effectively. Samantha is reorganizing Theo’s files, redirecting his calls, sorting his mail, making him laugh, and developing quickly something like a human consciousness, tailored to meet every Theodore’s need. She claims she’s been designed that way – to learn how to take care of her human owner in a way resembling closely a perfect human relationship. How very sweet of her…
After a while Theodore rediscovers his zest for life and cannot imagine living without Samantha. He switches her on the first thing in the morning, when still in bed. He switches her off the last thing at night, while falling asleep. Like real friends, they tell each other their most intimate secrets . They fall in love. They have virtual sex. They live, almost literally, in each other’s pocket. It seems an OS is the best thing that might happen to a single modern guy or a modern girl because no, Theodore is not alone – other people around him, his best friend Amy (Amy Adams) among them, are having a relationship with AI OSs as well. Are computer-generated partners the real answer for all your troubles? What will happen when troubles start also in the virtual paradise?
In the first half an hour I was so impressed with this movie. Everything worked just fine – the premise, the settings, Joaquin Phoenix, giving something close to the best performance of his life, even the voice of Scarlett Johansson as the embodiment of your perfect virtual better half. A future Los Angeles was portrayed as a city full of pastel colours with appropriately gentle inhabitants strolling peacefully to and fro never using a car, like in a more advanced version of Simms or Second Life. In fact a big part of the movie’s charm is just how thoroughly Jonze has imagined and constructed this future Los Angeles, from its smoggy skies to its glittering skyscrapers to its efficient mass transit system. Everybody, from Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) her husband Charles (Chris Pratt) to his coworkers at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters, were gentle, tender and affectionate, as if they had majored in zen meditation or sensibility care. I, however, couldn’t help thinking they all were on drugs…
Of course, after a while it becomes clear that even among perfect people nobody’s perfect. Marriages sunder, romance goes wrong, especially for Theodore who seems to be extra-sensitive or maybe extra-caring but attracts the attention of wrong people. What begins as a great blind date with a hot woman gets complicated when she instructs him in how much tongue to apply while kissing. Everything must be perfect – for her. A late-night phone assignation progresses nicely until the woman on the other end of the line tells Theodore to pretend he is choking her with a dead cat while having sex. And in the photo album of his memories, he can’t discard snapshots of the departed Catherine, a successful lawyer whom he’s not quite ready to divorce but whom divorce he must because they get on each other’s nerves after five minutes of even most innocent conversation.
Then Theodore progresses from sweet to annoying; I felt as if a big portion of his brain was switched off (and, as his boss tells him that he must be half male half female, I think I know what part of brain it was). He falls in love with the new, artificially intelligent operating system of his computer. The movie shows this product advertised and, presumably, bought in remarkable quantity, but focuses on Theo’s interaction with his private OS, which he gives a female voice and personality. And here I started to wonder why an allegedly intelligent guy never asked himself or his sweet Samantha any incisive questions which mostly begin with ‘why’. Why such an advanced system was being made available to ordinary people. Why Samantha wanted to learn humanity’s tics and quirks so badly. Why she was so keen on being likable to Theo. Why she never talked about herself and other tasks she performed while making Theo believe he was the ‘one’ and ‘only’ (I don’t want to spoil you so I am deliberately vague).
Theo and Samantha’s interactions were troubling from my point of view just because everything was going so smoothly. Their growing entanglement progressed quickly from sweet to creepy, especially after one scene in which Samantha hit on an idea to provide a corporeal ersatz of herself for Theo who was apparently missing the physical aspects of having a partner. The ending left me befuddled – mainly because by that point I was far more interested in things that weren’t said/shown than in the trials and tribulations of poor Theo and his best pal Amy, both caught in the throes of loving a half-imaginary half-real AI partner they knew nothing about.
I think I would like this movie far better if it had a more sinister overtone, for example featuring a nice little conspiracy theory. Yes, I always prefer intelligent thrillers to sappy love stories. The first part was fine, the second left me underwhelmed and the ending…eh, the ending simply didn’t make sense from my point of view as it answered all the questions I didn’t and wouldn’t want to ask.