This film would not have made sense ten years go — now it makes too much sense for comfort. It’s nominally about a guy named Theodore who falls in love with the sultry voice, witty style and consoling charm of his smartphone’s operating system. The tale is set a few years in the future, when the interactive possibilities of a virtual human OS have been extensively developed, but you can recognize the OS here (who calls herself Samantha) as a lineal descendent of Siri.
Falling in love with an operating system has its limitations, obviously — only a fantasy form of sex is possible — but at first those limitations don’t seem so bad. Samantha has infinite patience, access to most human knowledge and develops genuine insights into Theodore’s moods and character, his man-boy passivity and fear masquerading as sensitivity.
Most importantly, Samantha knows how to “talk through” a relationship — she knows all the ploys and challenges and rewards, all the boundaries to be negotiated . . . and you begin to realize that this “talk” is the relationship, that the relationship’s only substance is this web of clichés that we have all been programmed to export and import on cue. It’s the kind of self-conscious talk that would make, and often enough does make, even a corporeal relationship bloodless, immaterial . . . an abstract proposition.
Theodore begins to understand this when Samantha introduces him to one of her other “lovers”, a virtual Alan Watts. This is the equivalent of that moment in a flesh-and-blood relationship when one partner discovers a route to a spiritual awakening which, unfortunately, will require some physical unfaithfulness to go along with it. (Watts was notorious for seducing his female devotees with highfalutin’ Zen platitudes about “personal liberation”.)
Meanwhile, as the Theodore-Samantha relationship runs its more and more painfully familiar course, Theodore finds himself thrown together with an old friend going through her own break up. She’s not as brilliant as Samantha, not as perceptive, not as stylish, not as eloquent — but she’s a real girl who needs a real boy . . . a relationship that isn’t created by talking about it, but by doing it.
By the end of this astonishingly wise and goodhearted film, you may feel you’re watching the first meeting of a new Adam and Eve — the boy and girl of the future who will have to rescue romance from the outdated code of standard relationship software, so predictable by now that even Siri will soon be able to imitate it flawlessly.
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