Love in the land of virtual reality

Love in the land of virtual reality

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Romantic comedy takes an intriguing step into the future with “Her,” the wonderfully mellow and melancholy film playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Set in a gleaming, high-rise Los Angeles of the mid-21st century, this Spike Jonze film explores what it might be like to fall in love with the Operating System on your cell phone. It makes an entertaining choice for celebrating Valentine’s Day.

“Her” has already won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay and is nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Original Score, Original Song, Production Design, and Original Screenplay. It is the first time Mr. Jonze, who paired up with Charlie Kaufman for “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” has written the screenplay for one of his movies.

In “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a sad-sack of a guy who’s as goofy as his name. With slumping shoulders, a caved-in chest, a Fuller Brush mustache to hide behind, and high-rise pants, this talented actor turns Theodore into the epitome of an average guy lost in the future. Theodore works for BeautifullyWrittenLetters.com, penning sentiments for customers too busy to do it themselves. The nature of this business suggests exactly how far the world of “Her” has traveled into digital reality.

Theodore’s wife, Catherine, played by Rooney Mara, has decided to end their marriage, and Theodore is lonely and disconsolate as a result. Flashbacks to happier times with Catherine reinforce the sense of loss he is experiencing. When Theodore isn’t at work, he spends his time in his high-tech apartment playing video games, having chat-room sex encounters, and hanging out with Amy (played by Amy Adams), a friend from college who is an aspiring filmmaker. Partially shot in the Pudong District of Shanghai, this Los Angeles of the future has rendered cars obsolete and turned the world into a green, well-lit but sterile environment.

When Theodore sees an ad for the world’s first Artificial Intelligence (AI) Operating Systems (OS), he opts to upgrade his iPhone, and Samantha enters his life as the disembodied voice of his new OS. Although originally voiced by Samantha Morton, this cyber-woman is played by Scarlett Johansson, and she appears to be a male fantasy of the perfect woman. It’s interesting to speculate how much the audience’s knowledge of what Scarlett actually looks like influences her persuasiveness as Samantha.

Samantha wades through Theodore’s email, wakes him up in the morning, helps him with his romantic life, and engages in pillow talk before he goes to sleep. Ephemeral as she is, she doesn’t seem to cause any of the problems that real women do in Theodore’s life. It doesn’t take long for Theodore to fall head over heels.

Soon he is not only wandering around with ear buds talking to Samantha, but also carrying his iPhone in his breast pocket so Samantha can experience his world with him. In an absurdly comic take on a double date, Theodore and Samantha go on a picnic with his colleague Paul (Chris Pratt) and Paul’s girlfriend. They chat casually about what it’s like to have an OS as a girlfriend.

Samantha is designed to evolve as she acquires information about Theodore’s world. “I’m growing in a way I never could if I had a physical form,” she tells Theodore. The catch is that Theodore longs to experience a physical dimension of his OS. So Samantha arranges for a surrogate to provide a three-way sexual liaison, and the results are comically disastrous.

What makes “Her” such a compelling film is the way Mr. Jonze explores how a romantic relationship might work with an AI-powered OS. He takes seriously the growing reliance people today have on virtual worlds. He runs with it but doesn’t try to launch a diatribe against the virtual realities we all find ourselves entering. The fact of the matter is that Samantha may just be evolving to a state beyond and better than ordinary humanity. What that means for Theodore  — and the viewer — gives pause for thought.

“Her,” Thursday, Feb. 6, 7:30 pm; Friday, Feb. 7, 7:30 pm; Saturday, Feb. 8, 4 pm; Sunday, Feb. 9, 4 pm.

Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Documentary, Friday, Feb. 7.

Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Animation, Saturday, Feb. 8, 4 pm.

Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live Action, Sunday, Feb. 9, 7:30 pm.

Classic Film Night: “Raw Deal,” Wednesday, Feb. 12, 7:30 pm.  All films at M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members; $7 ages 14 and under. For tickets and more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.