Autumn 2021 marks a renaissance for big-budget cerebral sci-fi for adults, with flashy and expensive new adaptations of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Isaac Isimov’s Foundation hitting big and small screens, respectively. But, as appealing as these projects might be, it’s important to remember that science fiction doesn’t require a massive scope to tickle your brain and excite your imagination. From the opposite side of the sci-fi flavor spectrum comes I’m Your Man (or Ich bin dein Mensch in its native German), a light comic romance about an arranged relationship between a scientist and an artificial intelligence. Already selected as Germany’s entry into the Oscar race for Best International Feature, I’m Your Man is a sweet and thought-provoking sci-fi dramedy whose most prominent “computer effect” is Dan Stevens’ performance as an amorous android.
I’m Just a Love Machine
Dr. Alma Felser (German actress Maren Eggert) is an archeologist and art historian selected to participate in a scientific study. For three weeks, Alma will have a houseguest, Tom (Dan Stevens, Legion), a completely lifelike android designed to be her perfect romantic partner. His mind and body were developed based on a scan of Alma’s brain, fine-tuning an algorithm based on millions of survey results. Alma’s part in the study is to provide an ethical analysis on the practice of a synthetic partnership.
But while some might jump at the opportunity, Alma has no interest in the experiment. In fact, she was volunteered for it by default as the only member of her department at the Pergamon Museum who is both qualified and unattached. Alma hopes to pass the three weeks without really engaging with Tom, but finds that to be impossible as he has a will of his own beyond simply following her orders. His initial romantic gestures are pedestrian — cleaning up her apartment, cooking a fancy breakfast, etc. — but more time together and out in the world seems to help him develop into a more complex individual, one who Alma can’t help but to become comfortable with. Alma must then reckon with not only her own feelings for Tom but also the grander implications of a world where love can be manufactured on demand.
The story described above could easily be depicted in a way that’s eerie and threatening. After all, the real-life experience of being obsessively loved by a stranger is far more likely to be terrifying than endearing. Yet director and co-screenwriter Maria Schrader manages to cleanse the premise of all but the slightest traces of menace, leaving a sweet, thoughtful character study. Dan Stevens excels at playing characters who seem a bit off until the moment they go all the way off (see Adam Wingard’s The Guest), but here he proves to be just as adept at the reverse, beginning as a charming parody of a human being and becoming the genuine article so gradually that it almost escapes notice. The emotional center of the film, of course, is Maren Eggert’s Alma, who juggles loneliness, exhaustion, joy, grief, and an uncommonly convincing portrayal of mean, angry inebriation. The dynamic between the characters is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and Eggert and Stevens have such chemistry that it’s easy to accept that one of them was made for the other.
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “In Theory,” the Android Lieutenant Commander Data engages in a romantic relationship with a fellow officer. Data has no emotions (allegedly, I’d argue that he simply experiences a different spectrum of feeling) but attempts to play the role of a loving boyfriend anyway, writing a new subroutine to his program designed to suit his partner’s needs. The trouble is, there’s no actual love behind his behavior, it’s all calculated, which ultimately does not satisfy and dooms the romance. I’m Your Man takes the opposite tack, more akin to the mecha child David in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. — what if a machine really could be programmed to love you in a complete and convincing way? Could you love it back? Should you?
The trick of I’m Your Man is that it explores this question in such a gentle, human way that the intellectual debate is practically invisible for much of the film. Once his personality begins to grow around Alma’s, Tom becomes a plainly likable guy who’s easy to root for as a romantic foil. The source of the comedy shifts from his difficulty reading a room to the surprising ease with which he interacts with people. He develops an emotional intuition to match his internet-powered intellect. He has an imagination, a sense of humor and a sense of honor, and not all of it can be traced back to direct input from Alma. Schrader makes sure to give us a few scenes that indicate that Tom doesn’t simply shut off when he doesn’t know he’s being observed. He exists for Alma, but that doesn’t seem to be all that he is. He’s self-aware, even proud of his nature as an artificial life form, and his efforts to woo Alma aim to make her appreciate that he’s not human rather than to forget.
It’s difficult to argue that Tom is not a real person, but whatever inner life he develops, there’s still the matter of his one hard-coded directive. For Tom, the fact that his love is pre-programed doesn’t make it any less real. It’s up to Alma to decide whether or not that makes it real enough for her. The film’s only significant misstep is how suddenly Alma seems to make her decision and how neatly it’s justified. Her final conclusions are totally defensible, but they don’t feel fully supported by the text with which we’re presented. The film’s sense of intimacy is one of its greatest strengths, but Alma’s evaluation has far-reaching consequences and the story might have benefited from occasionally taking a broader view of the world around her.
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Simply studying Alma’s relationship with Tom in isolation would have made for an interesting enough science fiction movie (Imagine Ex Machina as a comic romance), but Schrader wisely contextualizes her reticence towards Tom via the larger scope of her work and family life. The sci-fi angle is intriguing and ripe for conversation, but I’m Your Man is about Alma first and the big “What If?” second. Alma has spent years studying Sumerian Cuneiform in an effort to prove that humans have been writing poetry for as long as they’ve had the written word. She comes to life at work, where she attempts to quantify art by scientific means — it’s no wonder that her encounter with a product of science designed to evoke feeling is anathema to her.
Outside of the museum, nothing is quite as fulfilling. Alma looks out her window and sees a world designed for couples and families — even her own bathroom has two sinks. She visits with her father, an 80-year-old widower suffering from dementia, and envisions a future of bitter solitude. She plays with her giggly young nephew, and then goes home to a quiet apartment where she once sought to start a family with her ex-boyfriend. Every corner of Alma’s life feels like it has a history, and then into her life walks a man who has no history at all who’s been made to fit exactly into the empty space in her life. If she loves him, is that not narcissism?
Many fictional romances are driven by a character either not knowing what they want or being unwilling to admit what they want. As an audience, we root for characters to acknowledge their desires and overcome obstacles both external and self-imposed to accept love and live happier lives. I’m Your Man subverts this expectation as only science fiction can, wringing both humor and pathos from the effort. Alma does know what she wants and Tom is built to offer it, but her resistance to accepting it comes from such a reasonable place that it’s hard to know what outcome to root for. Remarkably, Maria Schrader makes this ambiguity work in her favor right up to the end. I’m Your Man is intellectually and emotionally fulfilling while forcing us to interrogate what it even means to feel fulfilled.