The story is set in the near future. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a shy introverted man who has a successful career ghostwriting love letters for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. (It appears that a great many people have outsourced the job of composing their own letters.) His marriage to his childhood sweetheart (Rooney Mara) broke up over a year ago though he still hasn’t fully accepted this. His best friend (Amy Adams) is trying to convince him to start dating again.
On impulse he buys a copy of “the first true artificially intelligent operating system,” hoping it will help him organize his life better. The new OS boots up and starts to talk to him with Scarlett Johansson’s voice and takes the name “Samantha.”
Not only does Samantha organize his life better but she also fills the void of loneliness in his life. He finds her funny and charming and she knows him better than anyone else. Soon he starts to feel that he is in love with her. Interacting through his smartphone she accompanies him on dates and they have typical romantic escapades.
It sort of makes sense. Given an artificial intelligence programmed to cater to one’s every need, wouldn’t it be natural to fall in love? How could a real person compete? Chobits, a manga and anime that came out almost a decade and a half ago, asked the same question with an approach that was more whimsical than this movie, but ultimately somewhat darker.
Chobits left a certain amount of ambiguity about whether the AI that the protagonist was falling for was a real “person.” There are, after all, programs today that can make a good stab at carrying on a conversation, even fooling some people part of the time as to whether they are human. But the programmers who write them know that these programs are not conscious in any meaningful sense. They just manipulate symbols without understanding the meaning of the words they use.
Her does not doubt that Samantha, though not human, is a conscious being with real feelings. Nevertheless falling in love with such an AI is problematic on any number of levels. The movie explores some of these problems, leading to a bittersweet ending.