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It’s been 11 years, but Spike Jonze has finally followed up on the dazzling promise he showed with his features Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). As he spent his time on short films and other projects, some respectable (adapting Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are), others less so (the seemingly bottomless Jackass-iverse), fans began to wonder if the true auteur wasn’t really writer Charlie Kaufman, who went on to script the equally brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and to direct the underrated Synecdoche, New York.

Jonze wrote as well as directed Her, and if it’s less audacious than the films he made with Kaufman, it ranks with them as a provocative inquiry into the nature of humanity in the face of technological advancement.

To put to another way, it’s a science fiction film, in the way that term should be applied.

Her stars Joaquin Phoenix, rather nerdier than the deceptively suave head shot used in the film’s poster, as Ted, who spends his days in the offices of, writing sentimental letters for the literarily challenged. The title role belongs to Scarlett Johansson, whom we never see: She is the voice of Samantha, his computer operating system, with whom he falls in love.

Sam is equal parts Siri and Hal, 2001’s self-aware computer, and she fills a space Ted’s life that has been empty since his wife (Rooney Mara) left him. Sam adapts to him in way that real women won’t (most hilariously with Kirstin Wiig as the voice of a chat room pal with whom Ted gets along until her needs take an unexpected tangent).

The word is never used, but Her is a film about what futurists like Ray Kurzweil call “the singularity,” the moment we’re expected to hit in the next half century when artificial intelligence overtakes the kind that you and I were born with. Where that will take us is an infinite question; Jonze looks only at the reaction of contemporary man, increasingly isolated from the rest of humanity and frustrated by emotional needs that seem unfulfillable, as he approaches that future.

If Her sends you out of the theater contemplating the near future, it does so with a light touch. Jonze and his production team have fun imagining how the near future might look—apparently belts will disappear, and safety pins will become a fashion accessory. (The cityscape is Los Angeles digitally merged with Shanghai.) In a role which largely consists of being onscreen alone talking to a disembodied voice, Joaquin Phoenix more than holds your attention—it’s a welcome reminder of what an able actor he is after the freakshow experiment of I’m Still Here.

Her may be less flashy than Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, which is likely to disappointment some viewers. But give it a chance and it gets under your skin like nothing else you’ve seen this year.

Watch the trailer for Her

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