Artificial intelligences — robots, cyborgs, humanoids, all that jazz — are often divided into two factions in sci-fi. They’re either humanity’s overlords, or they’re our servants, and whatever friction exists between us and them is caused by the discrepancies in those levels of authority. Imagining an engineered entity as an equal, full stop, is trickier, but the German sci-fi romance I’m Your Man handles the idea with thoughtful care.
In this well-paced, unexpectedly amusing film, German director and co-writer Maria Schrader considers the lure of romance, the demands of partnership, and the ethical question of what we owe creatures crafted specifically to meet our needs. (I’m Your Man would make a good double feature with Christian Petzold’s Undine, where Schader’s fellow German filmmaker probes at the same three ideas from a fantastical perspective, rather than a sci-fi one.) Is our happiness so important that it should be someone else’s only motivator? Can a robot created by humans have the same amount of free will as a human? If everything about AIs reflects human qualities, does that mean our mistakes — or our selfishness, or our cruelties — are our legacy?
The script, co-written by Schrader and Jan Schomberg, approaches these questions naturally and with a pleasantly jocular rhythm, through conversations between university professor and language researcher Alma (Maren Eggert) and the humanoid robot Tom (Dan Stevens), who she agrees to live with for three months. Alma has no interest in love or companionship, but is coerced into participating in the study when university dean Roger (Falilou Seck) promises her additional research funding if she reports back on her experiences with Tom.
The question is whether humanoids should be given human rights, such as the ability to work, marry, or travel. Alma and the other nine study participants agree to investigate whether AIs like Tom are “human enough” to earn baseline dignities and freedoms. Tom is presented as the perfect man for her, fitting all her specifications, desires, and demands. Normally, Alma spends her time as an observer, watching people as she drinks alone at the neighborhood bar, watching students at the university, or watching people on the streets below her upper-level balcony. Eggert’s minute changes in facial expression capture her array of reactions to her own voyeurism, and those subtleties reflect a woman who is so used to loneliness that she’s mistaken it for virtue.
Theoretically, Tom fits the bill for what Alma wants. He’s so handsome that one of the graduate students working with Alma practically swoons when he walks into their laboratory. He’s polite, holding doors open, tipping service staff, and serving coffee to one of Alma’s exes who unexpectedly shows up at her apartment. But Alma is distant, closed-off, and even harsh in her constant comments about Tom’s artificiality. During their first meeting (a clever scene that plays out like a bad date before revealing Tom’s status), Alma looks disgusted when an operating-system glitch causes Tom to repeat himself over and over again. In her home, she mocks his algorithm, and when he’s confused about her disinterest in him, she says “It’s human.” Are they going to sleep in the same bed, as the program intended? Absolutely not.
Eggert and Stevens have nice contrasting energy, with her unimpressed expressions, deadpan barbs, and standoffish body language sparking against his agreeably bland smile and more fluid physicality. Their interactions often involve Alma aggressively demanding answers, while Tom is amiably acquiescent. (“So, what’s the deal with your cock?”) That push-pull becomes so established that it’s a refreshing change of pace when Tom begins to question what Alma actually wants.
And while Stevens brings to mind Michael Fassbender’s David with his precise, efficient movements, Tom is slyly humorous and meaningfully self-aware, rather than oozing menace. Stevens’ proud line delivery of “I brush my teeth and clean my body” when Alma asks about his body’s bathroom requirements is the kind of bizarrely delightful moment where I’m Your Man excels.
But the film isn’t all hijinks and enemies-to-lovers romance, and its other plaintive subplots add welcome weight. Alma’s research into how early written language used poetry and metaphor to break up administrative texts mirrors the film’s greater philosophical considerations about the need for joy and spontaneity in everyday life. Her interactions with her aging father and the ex-boyfriend who quickly moved on after their breakup also add context that supports the film’s central thesis, about how the roles we play in other people’s lives challenge us to look past ourselves.
I’m Your Man uses Alma to argue that even if we might think we’re alone, our interconnectedness is part of the social contract of living in a society, and the shared responsibility of doing our best to better it. “He is a machine. He can’t feel anything,” Alma insists of Tom, and I’m Your Man thankfully doesn’t go down the expected route of saying that she’s the truly affectless one. Instead, I’m Your Man offers a perspective on humanity that’s equally whimsical and melancholy, and its intimacy is a welcome change of pace in science fiction, a genre that too often mistakes violence and colonialism as the only drivers of drama.
I’m Your Man opens in limited theatrical release on September 24, 2021, and debuts on digital rental services on October 12.