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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Pleasure and Promise of the Sci-Fi Romance

Among the scant books in my tiny rented room in San Francisco, I’ve kept a spine-worn copy of Romeo and Juliet. It’s the one I read in my high school English class, the pages yellowed, the margins filled with scribbled notes. Since the play was written in the 1590s, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the nature of love—irrational, all-consuming—has been told and retold in countless movie adaptations. I hold onto the book to revisit those insights, and also because I’m prone to nostalgic literary tendencies like keeping old books.

I am also a personal tech writer in 2018. It’s my job to keep tabs on how our rapidly shifting technology is shaping not only how we communicate, but how we empathize, trust, show affection. We now have questions about love that Romeo and Juliet can’t answer. How does 24/7 connection bring us together and drive us apart? How will AI change the definition of humanity? What will love look like 20 years from now? How about 100?

There's no doubt that some of what Shakespeare crystallized in his plays will endure, in some form. But when I speculate on the nature of love and tech, I look to a younger form of drama: the sci-fi romance movie.

Granted, the sci-fi romance is not a new genre. It is, however, an underappreciated one, in part because the incongruity of romance and science fiction makes it incredibly challenging to pull off. Consider the 2013 film Her: How do you even begin to tell the story of a man who falls in love with his virtual assistant?

But it’s precisely this seeming incompatibility of genres that makes them so powerful when they operate in harmony. One comes from a tradition as old as stories themselves. The other fixes its gaze to the future. When the two genres converge successfully, it produces a novel narrative by which to reimagine and reassess the ways we love.

The tech at the center of Her is artificial intelligence. The movie is set in a near future, where people are at once hyperconnected and profoundly lonely. Lovelorn Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) forms an unexpected relationship with his artificially intelligent virtual assistant Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The film is fearless about its exploration of the irrationality of love. In one scene, Theodore asks his best friend Amy (Amy Adams) if loving an OS makes him a freak. Amy, who is suffering her own heartache, says “I think anybody that falls in love is a freak.” The line’s a bit trite, sure, but the observation is startling in that it would resound as well and true in a traditional romance as it does in this speculative context.

In other words: Love is strange. Sci-fi simply turns the dial and embraces the weirdness.

In that way, love and sci-fi are perhaps not so diametrically opposed. They’re both fueled by the optimistic allure of the what-if. What if we fell in love, against all odds? Or, as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) poses: What if we fell in love, but it ended so bitterly that we decided to forget we were ever in love at all? Unlike Her, Eternal Sunshine is set in a world we recognize, with the minor addition of a medical venture that promises jilted lovers a procedure that erases all memories of their ex. For anyone who has experienced heartbreak, it’s an enticing prospect. Who wouldn’t want to forget that one ex? Eternal Sunshine explores the hypothetical by way of a radical, nonchronological romp through memory.

Still, while some plot points and presentations are innovative, many of these films suffer a glaring problem that feels anachronistic for a genre that claims to represent the future. The sci-fi romance has tended to depict women in outdated ways, inheriting the sexist traps that afflict both parent genres. Her dwells so utterly in Theodore’s loneliness that the primary role of its female characters, human and AI, is to develop the male protagonist. Ex Machina reduces its robot Ava to a sexy pile of wires, reflective of (and unwilling to challenge) the real-life gender problems with AI. And while Kate Winslet as Eternal Sunshine’s Clementine asserts her character beyond sexist tropes, the protagonist is still Jim Carrey starring as a Lonely Dude.

Still the fusion of two genres holds tremendous potential. I don’t doubt that we’ll see more sci-fi romances in our queues before long; the resurgence of genre content we saw this summer, coupled with Netflix’s relentless investment in sci-fi, will not likely be abating into the fall.

For now, the most promising sign from the genre comes not from film, but from TV. The “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror begins with a meet-cute, in the technicolor 1980s: Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) timidly wanders into a nightclub. She’s drawn onto the dance floor by a carefree Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and the budding chemistry between them is unmistakable. We relax into the familiar warmth of a rom-com. That is, until we slowly realize that the beach town is not what, or when, it seems.

“San Junipero” begins and ends as a love story, but one with a twist that deftly draws together conflicts concerning mortality and second chances, easily ranking it as one of the strongest episodes of the series. It represents my highest hopes for what the sci-fi romance can achieve: a reflection on how forms of love and desire have been restricted, and how tech could be an avenue to explore more just realities.

Thus far, creators in the genre have had no difficulty expanding our conceptions of science and technology; filmmakers easily dream up fictional gadgets and gizmos aplenty. Nevertheless, the genre suffers when its understanding of human relationships, particularly in its depictions of women, continues to be woefully unimaginative. The future of the sci-fi romance is less dependent on the ingenuity of the tech than it is on filmmakers’ insights on questions about love that have endured the test of time. If a sci-fi romance wants to present a meaningful projection of love in the future, it would do well to portray more kinds of relationships and more nuanced shades of love.

Maybe then we’d get a story worth keeping, a story set in a moment in time but impervious to time’s passage. One that, centuries from now, someone can cherish on her bookshelf in a shiny, futuristic San Francisco as dearly as a well-loved copy of Romeo and Juliet—be it a book, or hologram, or whatever the hell we’ll be reading on by that point.

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