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Gareth Higgins

Directed by Spike Jonze
Cert 15, 126 mins

Making friends with robots is a Hollywood staple, from Robby in Forbidden Planet to Short Circuit's Number 5, and even Rocky Balboa had a metal little helper in the fourth incarnation of his should-have-quit-when-he-lost-the-first-time series. The topic hasn't often been treated as an opportunity for serious reflection on the nature of being human, for which of course it is as ripe as a soft avocado.

As I was preparing to write this review, the great Austrian actor Maximillian Schell died, which brought to mind memories of his performance as the super villain in Disney's The Black Hole, an attempt at fusing Star Wars with 2001: A Space Odyssey, camp humour, and more than a soup├žon of Nietzsche. Schell's mad scientist on the edge of the titular cosmic vacuum cleaner has a monstrous android assistant named after him; it makes imaginative and troubling use of spinning knife arms anytime Anthony Perkins gets in the way. The Black Hole climaxes with the mad scientist actually inside the evil robot's body - a Schell inside a shell, if you will - surveying Hades from a lava-licked mountain top.

It's easy to forget, then, watching Her, Spike Jonze's melancholy-wonderful unfolding of one man's love affair with an operating system, that its natural home is dystopian sci-fi, not romantic comedy, and what we're watching is an indictment of what ails the contemporary psyche. Relating through screens and keyboards may make us more like machines than we might wish to admit; Theodore Twombly (who sounds like he's named by HG Wells or Roald Dahl) has a stuffed shirt and Simon Cowell-trousers that perfectly evoke a man who has difficulty connecting, but the genius of Jonze is that it's only with other characters in the film that this is true: I - and perhaps the rest of the audience - fall in love, or least in empathy, with Phoenix's character.

The fable-like quality of Her is front and centre; the light seems to be filtered through the dull pastel shades in which many of us remember our dreams, Theodore's very job is both a fantasy (he lives in the heads of people unable to communicate their true feelings), and only a step away from reality (he creates 'handwritten' letters that reveal the most vulnerable truths for complete strangers). And so, he falls in love with his computer, voiced by Scarlet Johannson (although the role was originated by Samantha Morton, replaced after she filmed every scene). The finished product includes dialogue spoken by Phoenix in reaction to provocations recorded by Morton, not only Johansson. Phoenix himself has said that he does not know which takes Jonze used in the final film. (There's an interesting ethical question here of whether or not Morton deserves a 'co-creator' credit, as one performance in a two-hander cannot be divorced from the other). Theodore can, however, be divorced from life, and that's what his literal separation from a wife his immaturity kept him from has done, leading him to look for solace in the voice of one of Siri's cousins. Her is achingly honest about the pain of being in love - how at some points, the only thing harder than giving yourself to another is holding yourself in isolation.

Having stopped reading news websites in January, I'm attempting a year-long experiment in weaning off an addiction to constantly knowing all the news that the political-industrial-entertainment-complex insists I should care about. After a month, I've started to breathe more easily. Anxiety levels have reduced, I am physically healthier, I have more time. I may even be turning into an optimist. Her helped me - for when, at the climax of this lovely, sad, hopeful film, Theodore experiences liberation from his addiction to mechanical pretend feelings, it comes from the unlikeliest of places. I won't spoil it but let's say that just as we need stabilizers to learn how to safely ride a bicycle, Her invites a philosophical reimagining of our power relationships with silicon chips: it's a classy film made with exceptional technological deftness, it's a heartbeat inside a robot, it's an invitation to ask not what computers can do for us, but how we can steward the tools of astonishing advance without losing our souls.