Spike Jonze discusses the nuances of his technological love masterpiece Her

The new movie from Adaptation and Being John Malkovich maker Spike Jonze Her is unusually perceptive and often troubling for its take on the ways that technology is transforming our lives. In the case of the film’s hero — Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) a sweet but lonely writer living in a near-future version of Los Angeles — those effects are palpable in every aspect of his daily existence well before he takes the next step in humankind’s ever more complicated relationship with the machines we rely on. That next step comes when he falls in love with a sentient operating system named Samantha. (His desires are not so surprising given that Scarlett Johansson supplies the voice.)

For some viewers the premise will immediately suggest science-fiction satire — think Woody Allen’s Sleeper with an upgraded Orgasmatron. Yet the director is keen to stress that there’s something else at the heart of Her something more fundamentally human and sincere.

“I picked this very large concept and these very hot-button ideas but not intentionally” says Jonze in a recent phone interview. “It seemed more appropriate to pick those ideas but then try to write about this thing that’s counter to it which is who we are in relationships with each other. I really was trying to understand relationships and myself in relationships even if it wasn’t about anything specific to my life.”

Indeed what’s most striking about Her has little to do with its alternately inviting and eerie depiction of a future L.A. (which is actually played by Shanghai in many scenes) any of the gadgetry or even the fashion trends it predicts (e.g. a big comeback for high-waisted trousers). It’s the movie’s delicacy and insightfulness as a love story. Weirdly enough it’s almost irrelevant that only one-half of the central couple is visible on screen which Jonze initially perceived as the greatest challenge in the latest of his many strange gambits as a filmmaker.

And though it’s not as much of a solo show as you might expect from the storyline — Amy Adams Olivia Wilde and Rooney Mara all make equally strong impressions as the women who have a more physical presence in Theodore’s life — Her owes much of its success to Phoenix’s ability to convey all the vulnerability the story requires to feel true. Jonze didn’t write the part for the actor but quickly realized upon meeting with him that there was no one else he wanted to play Theodore. “I would’ve been really heartbroken if he said no” he admits. “He brought so much to it. Every day it was incredible to watch him and see what he did.”

While viewers of Her may not automatically associate its tender contents with the rather racier goings-on between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris Jonze explains that Bernardo Bertolucci’s classic was an inspiration for him and Phoenix in creating their film’s most private moments. “You just felt like you were in that apartment with those people breathing along with them in these very intimate scenes” says the director. “I don’t feel any ‘acting’ in those scenes and I think that’s incredible — that’s something we aspired to.”

As for another unlikely influence on Her Jonze cites a much-cherished Woody Allen movie (no it’s not the one with the Orgasmatron). “I watched Crimes and Misdemeanors as I was writing” he says. “That script is so masterfully written in that it has all of these storylines and characters and they’re all struggling with these big ideas and yet the movie is not weighed down by them — there’s a buoyancy to it.”

The same is true of Her . Jonze’s achievement is a rare one having crafted a film that intelligently addresses issues and anxieties about how we live (or are about to live) while rooting them in a richly moving story about the kind of emotional matters that have stymied our species since long before we had iPhones eHarmony or Chatroulette to distract us.

HER directed by Spike Jonze starring Joaquin Phoenix Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson opens on Friday January 10.