Future romance: how sci-fi predicts our love and sex lives
Indie film Marjorie Prime is the latest work to examine love and sex in the future
Jon Hamm as a computer simulation of a woman’s dead husband in Michael Almereyda’s indie film Marjorie Prime. Photograph: Jason Robinette.
Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell in Yorgos Lanthimos’s black comedy The Lobster where people have 45 days to find love
In the opening scene of Marjorie Prime, we first meet Marjorie, an 85-year-old struggling with memory loss, as she listens to Walter Prime, a computerised hologram version of her husband, describe the second dog that she and her real husband adopted.
“Toni II, but that was soon shortened to just Toni,” Walter Prime explains, as if he were actually there. “And of course it wasn’t exactly Toni, but the longer they had her the less it mattered which Toni it was that ran along the beach and which Toni it was that dug up all the bulbs in the garden. The more time that passed, the more she became the same dog in their memories.”
Our fear of future kinds of love seems to be a fear of this kind of substitution – the idea that a real, living, breathing thing could be replaced by something that is almost, but not exactly, the same thing. In Marjorie Prime, old loves are presented as ghosts, fantastic illusions that can’t be touched, and that operate as sounding boards for unresolved emotional needs – be it a child yearning for her mother, or a granddaughter hoping she can connect with a grandmother who died before she could ever meet her. Marjorie doesn’t want a second Toni any more than she wants a holographic version of her husband. And yet, there is also something seductive about the sense of possibility that comes with how a replacement can also mean a new beginning, as well as the opportunity to erase old memories and create new ones.
AI is the perfect sounding board for these modern anxieties about human connection, and 20th- and 21st-century films are filled with dystopian landscapes that showcase the loneliness of a world where intimacy is something you can buy. In many of these films, from classics such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to more modern movies like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, the creators and consumers of AI are male, while the AI themselves are female. The patriarchal underpinning of this is vividly explored in sci-fi such as The Stepford Wives and Cherry 2000, where we are ushered into worlds where compliant and submissive female robots are idealised by their male creators as the epitome of perfection, and always exist completely under their thumb. The female robots we meet in these films cook, clean, are unfailingly supportive and are always sexually available, in addition to being exceptionally beautiful. These sex-bots have also become both a mainstay of humor, from the sexy goofiness of 80s films such as Weird Science and Galaxina, to the cheeky and slightly more socially aware comedies in the 90s, with the frilly, busty fembots of Austen Powers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s charmingly dippy “Buffy-bot”.
In recent years, we’ve seen many creatives flip the script on these sexist dynamics. In her album The Arch Android, Janelle Monae’s alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, is a protagonist in her own right; and in Spike Jonze’s Her, Theo’s ex-wife points out the sexism of Theo falling for an OS after struggling with the ups and downs of actual human intimacy. On series such as Westworld, men and women are equally likely to use male and female robots for sexual pleasure, and in the episode of Black Mirror called Be Right Back, we see a woman create her own AI when a young widow named Martha grieves her dead husband through the use of a computer service that re-constructs him (or an AI version of him) using elements of his online identity.
Like Marjorie Prime, Black Mirror offers several compelling visions of how technology could be used to help people deal with grief, and begs the question of whether these new ways of experiencing love take away from our humanity. In Be Right Back, Martha’s AI is at first merely a sounding board for desire, but the stakes are raised considerably when the company offers Martha the chance to construct a physical version of her deceased husband, one that looks, feels and sounds just like him, except for being a lot better in bed. Likewise, in Black Mirror’s award-winning episode San Junipero, we see how elderly and terminally ill patients are allowed to escape their current lives by uploading themselves into a simulation party town, where the dying and already dead can experience a manmade “afterlife”.
The world of San Junipero is in some ways an optimistic vision of the future. We see how new technology offers Yorkie, a woman who has been in a coma after a car accident in her early twenties, the possibility to experience a “normal” life. And yet, it also points to more complex moral dilemmas – is there something sacrilegious about embracing a simulation over a more traditional death? Is experiencing the same simulated environment every day truly a kind of paradise?
In many of today’s most fascinating visions of future love, the body itself seems like a relic of the past. In Her, for example, we encounter a social landscape where love between humans and machines doesn’t require a physical body at all. Instead we watch as Theo shares his most personal moments with an AI who he never actually touches, but who conveys intimacy through talking, sharing messages, drawings, ideas and sexual fantasies. In our current social climate, where dating often means scrolling through photos and written bios rather than interacting with people in person, the idea that you could fall in love with your computer doesn’t seem so far-fetched. After all, we’re already used to more disembodied forms of communication, and, as many older generations continue to lament, many young people today are more likely to text or sext than actually establish in-person kinds of intimacy.
For some filmmakers today, all forms of dating, online or in person, are ripe for social critique. In Yorgos Lanthimos’s black comedy The Lobster, for example, the world of romance is portrayed as a dismal social obligation, where those who don’t find their perfect match in 45 days are literally transformed into an animal of their choosing. In the world of The Lobster, the quest for love is robbed of any poetry or eroticism, as people are matched to one another like contestants in an incredibly sad real-world game show, and those who disapprove protest by disavowing love completely, opting instead to dance alone at night, listening to music through their own individual headphones.
While The Lobster paints a portrait of modern love that is ultimately bleak, films such as Her and Marjorie Prime, which focus on our changing relationship to AI, unabashedly insist on love’s power to prevail over loneliness and disconnection, and even point to the ways the our modern love stories may not be so different from the ones that existed in the past. After all, how many lovers from older generations didn’t also spend all night penning in their journals, calling out to a lover who was part real person, part intoxicating dream?
These gentle explorations of future kinds of love don’t offer alternatives to old ideas about love. Rather, they reiterate what about love can never be replicated, and show how in a world where romance is often portrayed as just another product you can buy, real expressions of love matter precisely because of how easy it is for them to slip away.