On the most literal level, deceptively busy Sundance novelty “Love Me” is about the relationship between a buoy adrift at sea and a satellite circling the earth. Sam and Andy Zuchero’s eccentric cosmic rom-com takes place in a time after humans have gone extinct, when the surviving machines’ only references are a massive hard drive’s worth of data combed from search engines and social media sites. Audiences can root for the two devices, or they may plunge as deep as they want into this most unconventional of love stories, projecting themselves onto AI characters embodied (in various forms) by Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun.
Beautiful and complicated, those two stars make a most enticing screen couple, even if they’re just playing idealized avatars for a pair of robots. The Zucheros’ creation is audacious and original, but also suffers from some of the same ADHD issues that afflicted “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (both are movies made for multitaskers with brains wired for constantly switching between screens). We couldn’t be farther from the elegance of “Casablanca” here — or Spike Jonze’s “Her,” with its relatively minimalist aesthetic.
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It’s a sci-fi cliché that all robots secretly want to be human, but in this case, that operating assumption invites the humans in the audience to project whatever feelings they please onto Stewart and Yeun’s evolving screen counterparts, as the two Self-Monitoring Analyzing and Revision Technology machines act out what it means to be a couple — much less alive, or in love — over roughly an eon. Speeding through a time-lapse history of the planet, the movie opens with the extinction event that leaves the SB350 Smart Buoy stranded off the coast of what was once Manhattan.
It’s a future no less a visionary than Steven Spielberg depicted in the last act of “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” and one the Zucheros shrewdly decided to shoot practically, such that the floating device feels real when we first “meet” it. Same goes for the helper satellite seen streaking high overhead like a long-tail blue comet. In close-up, it was built to scale by Laird FX (wise, since the midsection of the film is dominated by visual effects).
One has a lens, the other a series of solar panels, but neither seems anthropomorphic per se. That’s a bold choice, design-wise, when you consider that Wall-E and Eve had eyes and limbs, plus Pixar animators working to humanize their expressions throughout. “Love Me” leans a little too heavily on comedy, taking easy-target swipes at online culture, circa 2024. And yet the Zucheros resist relying on cuteness, trusting adult (or at least young adult) imaginations to do most of the work.
The buoy, which dubs itself me.life.form (or “Me” for short), and the satellite, rechristened “Iam,” start out as blank-slate AIs. Me’s directive is to find a connection, while Iam has been programmed to connect with any life-form that exists on the planet previously inhabited by humans. And so they do, though it all starts with a mistruth: Me isn’t a life-form, but must pose as one to initiate the link. It’s no great stretch to imagine Me’s fib as being akin to the little white lies humans tell when they meet, whether online or IRL — embellishments intended to make themselves more attractive, available or average than they really are.
Once the connection between Me and Iam has been established, the Zucheros provide a virtual space where the rest of their interactions can occur — first a blank-screen search engine, then a rudimentary VR apartment, modeled after an influencer couple named Deja and Liam (played by Stewart and Yeun) that Me sees on her Instagram page. Me steals Deja’s identity and presents it as her own, introducing a high-concept version of a tired rom-com cliché: the built-on-a-lie trope, where one party assumes the relationship will crumble if they come clean.
Early on, Me binge-watches a bunch of YouTube videos, fixating on “love,” which takes many forms (from cuddly puppies to parent-child embraces). One can only imagine how confusing human emotions might be to the AIs that outlive us, and yet, the Zucheros are more interested in the buoy and satellite as metaphors for the human brain: the way we’re socialized, and how various media serve to shape our expectations of marriage, motherhood and more.
Me is especially taken with one of Deja’s postings, called “Date Night 2.0,” in which the couple make quesadillas, smooch and watch “Friends.” That sitcom, and most of what Hollywood has produced over the past century, could be considered as contrived and impossible-to-emulate as Deja’s influencer posts. Depending on how you choose to read “Love Me,” Me and Iam might not be robots at all, but stand-ins for impressionable young people confronted with images of what to seek from a partner. (Harder to interpret is the incredibly long stretch they spend apart, as Iam obsesses about creating water and incrementally upgrades the virtual apartment.)
The movie’s sex scene, when it comes, makes for the most intriguing two minutes of screen time in the Zucheros’ often bewildering (but never boring) 91-minute feature — so much of which defies conventional movie grammar as editors Joseph Krings and Salman Handy seek to convey outside-the-box ideas about love and identity. In that particular montage, Me and Iam have graduated from rudimentary Sims-style avatars to hyper-real versions of Stewart and Yeun, whom Me imagines with long hair and breasts.
What does she really desire? How much of those feelings have been imprinted by culture, as opposed to originating from within? These are fascinating inquiries — a preoccupation with authenticity coming from artificial intelligence — though I’d just as soon see them acted out by human characters living in the real world (whereas the primitive avatars far overstay their welcome in the film’s draggy midsection). With their unnecessarily high-concept approach, the Zucheros seem to have taken the long way around the sun to arrive right back at Earth for a simple boy-meets-girl story.
As the two robots reenact “Date Night 2.0” infinite times until they get it right, it’s hard not to see a flaw in the premise: Why is this the only reference point they have for romance? And why would robots fixate on romance anyway? Give two SMART devices brains and a billion years, and you’d think they’d evolve beyond such basic relationship models. Heck, maybe they could even teach us a thing or two, rather than winding up right where humans were before obliterating themselves.
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