Bina48, the central figure of the documentary “Love Machina,” is among the most terrifying film characters of the year. A disembodied head resembling a middle-aged Black woman and powered by artificial intelligence, Bina48 combines a realistic face, dead emotionless eyes, jerky and mechanical head movements, and speech that resembles a voicemail chatbot more than a living being to create an uncanny valley nightmare. But to basically everyone on screen, Bina48 is a dream, a sign of a world where — to quote the motto of her makers at the Terasem Movement — “Life is purposeful. Death is optional. God is technological. Love is essential.”
Whether “Love Machina” agrees with its subjects’ views about Bina48, and the larger ongoing debates about the ethics of artificial intelligence, is a bit of a mystery even by the time its credits roll. In taking us into the story of the AI, director Peter Sillen opts for a fairly neutral approach that acknowledges some counterarguments and complications, enough that the film can’t be called full-throttle AI propaganda. But the failure to take a strong stance either way makes for a boringly ambivalent film, one that fails to either enchant with promises of the future or terrify with warnings of what’s to come.
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As the title suggests, “Love Machina” fashions itself as a story of a marriage, though it doesn’t dig particularly deeply into the relationship between its central characters. Bina48 is modeled after Bina Rothblatt, the wife of massively successful lawyer, satellite technology and biotechnology entrepreneur, and SiriusXM founder Martine Rothblatt. Married for over 40 years, Martine and Bina are almost oppressively in love (they even give themselves their own ship name, MarBina), and their pet project the Terasem Movement is intended as a gigantic tribute to their bond. Based on (the Rothblatts’ interpretations of) beloved sci-fi author Octavia Butler’s works, the Terasem Movement seeks to find a way to upload people’s consciousness into artificial intelligence, to cheat death and live forever. Bina is essentially the guinea pig for the organization’s efforts, her robot doppelganger powered by an algorithm based on her “mind file,” a virtual upload of the real woman’s personality and experiences based on a series of rigorous interviews.
The Terasem Movement and its goals raise a lot of obvious philosophical questions, but “Love Machina” doesn’t try to ask them. The Rothblatts and the majority of the people interviewed in the film — among them Terasem managing director Bruce Duncan, the Hanson Robotics engineers that developed Bina48, two of the couple’s children, and a gaggle of assorted artificial intelligence experts — don’t reveal any negative or contradictory feelings about the rise of AI or undercut the Rothblatts’ unwavering vision for the future in any way. Fascinating discussions about death’s role in human life, the nature of human consciousness, and the religious implications of living forever beg to be had about Terasem’s work, but the film doesn’t want to start them.
The movie does tip its toes into the most uncomfortable element of the Bina48 story, the fact that a replica of a Black woman was created by a team of (seemingly) all-white people. “Love Machina” doesn’t ignore it, including scenes where the team that created her discuss the difficulties that came from sculpting Black skin after previously making exclusively white male robots. The only person willing to probe deeper into the subject that we see in the film is Stephanie Dinkins, a professor and artist known for her series of videos in which she converses with Bina48. Dinkins, a Black woman who specializes in art exploring artificial intelligence, isn’t necessarily anti-AI, but she reveals her discomfort with Bina48 as a representative of a Black woman, one whose code falls short of grasping the social context of her race. It’s easily the most interesting discussion that the film has, but one that gets siloed off into a short section rather than meaningfully incorporated into the film’s discussions of AI at large.
That’s not the only angle of the film that goes unexamined. Frequently, “Love Machina” comes across as two films in one: a film about a marriage, and a film about the broader world of artificial intelligence. Rather than complement each other, both stories only flatten when paired together. The refusal to take a particularly strong approach to the question of artificial intelligence means there’s very little interesting discussion about the topic to be had, and the film runs out of anything to say about Bina48 and its role in the advancement of AI very early on. In the final few minutes of the film, Sillen loses any semblance of focus and takes detours into the worlds of cryogenics and conversations with AI experts unrelated to Bina48, with little sense of how to meaningfully incorporate them into the broader film. All this is presented in a competent but thoroughly visual and editing style, that — a few slightly creepy shots of Bina48 aside — is content to just float from talking head to coverage without a real sense of style.
The Rothblatts’ story, presented via archival photos and video interviews done during the process of creating Bina’s “mind file,” is a potentially richer text that gets similarly diluted. For a film ostensibly about marriage, the recounting of their love story is painfully surface-level; you never actually know what draws the two into their passionate relationship. There are interesting threads about Martine’s gender transition and life as a prominent and powerful trans woman and the interracial nature of their family that the movie approaches timidly and fluffily, never adding dimension beyond the basic facts.
Late in the film, it’s revealed that part of the couple’s obsession with preventing death comes from the horrifying experience of witnessing one of their children go through a bout of childhood illness. Because the documentary doesn’t tell us much about any of these people, the revelation doesn’t particularly invite an emotional response. Like a lot of AI art, “Love Machina” is too fixated on technological advancement to leave any room for real, interesting human feelings.
“Love Machina” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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