Husband-and-wife filmmaking team Sam and Andy Zuchero have loftily described their debut feature, Love Me, as “Kubrick meets YouTube.” But what comes to mind while experiencing the increasingly stultifying sci-fi odyssey is closer to a mashup, filtered through the prism of social media, of Spike Jonze’s Her and Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, without the imagination or depth of reflection that fuels either of those films. Taking two of the most magnetic actors on the planet, Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun, and transforming them into emotionally stunted virtual avatars for more than half the running time is the least of the miscalculations.
Mixing live action, animation, animatronics and game engine architecture, the movie starts amusingly enough, with a sped up space view of Earth covering more than five million years as it evolves and eventually reaches cataclysm point with a sputter of explosions. That’s curtains for humanity.
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A solar-powered smart buoy launched off the California coast in 2025 (voiced by Stewart) bobs around in the ocean for an indeterminate amount of time until a satellite (Yeun) orbits into its range. “Welcome to Earth,” says the buoy, a shuttlecock-shaped structure with one large blinking eye and a chirpy digital voice that’s halfway between WALL-E and Stuart the Minion. The multi-panel satellite with its massive data bank is clearly a more sophisticated contraption, initially dismissing the buoy’s attempt to make contact: “You are not a lifeform. Goodbye.” But the buoy persists.
After the satellite shares an educational video stream about the life that once existed on Earth — everything from a David Attenborough nature doc to a dancing dog and babies cracking each other up — the buoy gets the idea of clicking the “I am not a robot” box on the interface. Even before it develops the qualities of a sentient being, the buoy is desperate for a reprieve from solitude.
There’s a decent amount of humor in this early stretch, notably when the buoy starts absorbing the Instagram feed of social influencers named Deja (Stewart) and her husband Liam (Yeun). Their vapid videos are whimsically titled “Another Day Another Deja… And Liam.” “And now we can be friends,” declares the buoy, identifying as “Me” after appropriating Deja’s image and voice. But by the time the satellite, which takes the characteristics of Liam and the moniker “Iam,” accepts the connection with a reciprocal follow, the scenario is already careening toward terminally cute AI hell. The incessant plinking plonking dissonant piano pushes it there faster.
There’s mild amusement in the inanity of Deja and Liam’s “Date Night 2.0!” routine of “Get cozy. Make Dinner. Turn on Friends. Ice cream. Bed by 10.” But the point that shallow social media self-presentation generally does not an authentic person make is a facile one that’s news to nobody at this point and Love Me is fooling itself if it thinks it’s going much deeper.
The tentative relationship between Me/Deja and Iam/Liam hits speed bumps even over their avatars’ first attempts to kiss. “It feels fake!” insists Iam, calling their role-playing star-crossed romance a pathetic cry for help, by which time the real-world tech generation parallels are all but clobbering you over the head.
When Me literally sinks out of range and becomes uncommunicative for “like, a billion years,” Iam gets more in touch with who and what he is, taking the responsibility of being “humanity’s tombstone” and transforming himself into a flesh-and-blood sentient being. (Enter Yeun, at last in physical form.) Me returns to find him in a three-dimensional home with real water and a whole range of ice-cream flavors. But her big surprise is the fully human reflection that greets her in the mirror. (Hello, KStew.)
Both actors are capable of so much more than the philosophical twaddle they’re given to play here. What makes the waste of talent more irksome is that it skirts perilously close to retrograde gender stereotypes by making Deja the one pushing to rush through courtship, marriage and parenting in order to know what a fulfilling life is while Liam rejects her obsession with the lives they create. His restless yearning to understand the elusive question of identity makes them more than likely incompatible.
Sure, it’s sobering to think that future-world denizens, human or otherwise, might judge us by the online lives we promulgate or the manipulated realities depicted on TV. It’s not impossible to imagine advanced civilizations bingeing Real Housewives and thinking, “They deserve to be extinct.” But as played out in Love Me, it’s a thin construct that becomes suffocating real fast. All the cool post-annihilation land- and seascapes in the digital workshop can’t make it interesting.
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