And so there's this computer. It's not exactly a laptop, or a tablet or smartphone, but an artificially hyperintelligent operating system that's half personal secretary, half therapist. It speaks in a naturalistic feminine rasp. It seems to be thinking. It seems to know you. "In every moment, I'm evolving," she explains the first time she powers on. You fall in love with her. She falls in love with you. She develops the capacity for jealousy. Eventually, you're arguing about sex and how she's spending too much time hanging out with dead philosophers. She refuses to boot up when you want her to. Then she starts saying things like, "I'm becoming much more than they programmed."

Twenty years ago, this scenario would've played as a dystopian nightmare. Indeed, Her, director Spike Jonze's tale of a man's affair with the disembodied voice that helps organize his email, bears some correlation to The Terminator—only instead of rising up to extinguish the human race, the machines just break our hearts. 

But in the era of Catfish, where "dating" is an increasingly abstract concept, such a premise can serve as the basis for an honest-to-goodness relationship drama. Of course, with Jonze, nothing is that simple. Her, the first film he's written himself, isn't another Charlie Kaufman mind puzzle, but its emotions are no easier to untangle, nor to categorize. Is it sci-fi? Horror? Satire? Or is a story about falling in love with binary code the only honest way to talk about modern romance? 

Because Her is a modern story, or close enough. It's set in a near-future Los Angeles that looks like present-day Tokyo, except populated by white 30-somethings who all dress like Palm Beach retirees. Let's call it the Uncanny San Fernando Valley: It's a society we recognize, but just askew enough to vaguely creep us out. Bluetooth has already made it difficult to parse schizophrenics from business people; now, not only is everybody talking to themselves, we're hiring human surrogates in order to fuck our computers and copywriters to compose our love letters. Portrayed, in actuality, by Shanghai, the city's density—and the fact that seemingly every male has a mustache and high-waisted pants—compounds the movie's uneasy intimacy. Though its tone is gently morose, Her is profoundly disturbing for a while. Until it isn't.

Credit Jonze for never mocking Joaquin Phoenix's lonely former L.A. Weekly staffer-turned-emotional copywriter, even though he puts him in a 'stache-and-glasses combo out of a pedophile Halloween costume and gives him the exceptionally dweeby name Theodore Twombley. Yeah, he's procrastinating on signing his divorce papers, and he spends his nights playing holographic video games and having phone sex, and sure, he's dating an operating system, but he's not ashamed: He introduces Samantha—that's the name the OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, gives itself—to his goddaughter and best friend (Amy Adams) and takes her on double dates with his boss. Nobody thinks he's crazy, and eventually, thanks to Phoenix's warm, subtly brave performance, neither do we.

It's hard to blame the guy, really. Some critics have suggested that casting Johansson is a form of audience manipulation, to make us unconsciously envision Samantha as a paragon of female beauty, but the brilliance of that decision is more about her voice than the idea of her body. Johansson's husky rasp sounds lived-in and imperfect. In other words, it's distinctly human. The Oscar talk is exaggerated, but she gives a fully realized performance, one that gradually evolves over two hours. She yearns to be a real woman, until she declares that we're all made of the same matter, so why get into semantics?

That may sound like Jonze wrote a whole movie arguing in favor of objectophilia, but that's not what Her is about, nor is it a critique of technological dependence. It is, perhaps, a movie that is easier to think about than to watch: It's overlong, and prone to greeting-card proverbs, such as "the heart's not like a box that gets filled up, it expands the more you love." But its central thought is one that will only grow more significant as the world becomes a bigger, more alienating place: Is any feeling real, or are we just programmed that way?

Critic's Grade: B

SEE IT: Her is rated is rated R. It opens Friday at Bagdad, Eastport, Bridgeport, Lloyd Center, Roseway.