“You have no idea how hard it is to program flirting,” a robotics employee ruefully commiserates to scientist-turned-test-subject Alma (Maren Eggert) at the start of I’m Your Man. “One false move, one misleading glance, one careless remark, and the romance evaporates.” It’s much the same for contemporary science fiction films: make them near-future enough to retain the comfort of the familiar, yet be very deliberate in what sets them a few steps ahead. Too many futuristic innovations—smartphones, cars, other tech—distract from the core emotional story, but without some memorable speculative element, it comes across like a bad Black Mirror knockoff.
How Maria Schrader’s spare, charming German-language film achieves this delicate balance is in the opening meet-cute between Alma and robot Tom (Dan Stevens), designed to be her literal dream man—that is, his algorithm precisely calibrated according to thousands of brain scans of her dreams—whose fitness as a romantic partner she is evaluating. Alma goes into the test clear-eyed about what he is, but what actually surprises her is that the setting for their first “date”—a dance hall filled with joyfully pirouetting couples—is all holograms. This is a carefully controlled experiment whose every structure is artificial, a fact that Alma cannot allow herself to forget.
I’m Your Man would seem to take thematic cues from other recent robot romances (Spike Jonze’s Her) and thrillers (Alex Garland’s Ex Machina) that riff on the Turing test, adjusting the variables to make the problem of proving AI sentience even trickier when the human partner knows they’re conversing with, and even potentially falling in love with, a machine. Schrader’s script, co-written with Jan Schomburg and adapted from Emma Braslavsky’s short story “Ich bin dein Mensch,” daringly raises the stakes to a societal level: Alma’s evaluation will not just determine whether Tom could make her happy, but will be part of a larger decision on whether his entire species will be allowed to get married, obtain passports, and otherwise enjoy personal freedoms and civil rights afforded to humans.
She has three weeks, a whirlwind assignment for an archaeologist who has spent the past three years poring over ancient Sumerian tablets trying to decipher if the supposedly administrative cuneiform writings actually conceal poetry and metaphor—an obscure project that she has nonetheless devoted her professional and personal time to. She wouldn’t even be wasting her time on this experiment if she didn’t desperately need the trade-off of funding for her own research.
Alma has been drafted for that familiar rom-com combination of laudable expertise in her field coupled with a bleak love life: She must be able to evaluate Tom on a data level, but the experiment won’t succeed if she doesn’t acknowledge her own desires at play. Eggert plays Alma’s hesitance with a wry defensiveness; she is as ready with a sarcastic rejoinder as Tom is with a computer-generated sweet nothing. It is a delight, then, to watch Stevens as her scene partner, alternately reminding her that it takes two to fine-tune his algorithm or teasing her for her machine biases in a way that makes him attractively un-self-conscious. (Like Tom, the screenplay tailors itself to its stars, including a backstory for Tom’s British accent speaking German that both matches Alma’s penchant for “foreign” men and also accounts for Stevens’ fluency in a language he picked up in adolescence.)
The movie is weighted more toward romance than comedy, but the latter is undeniably present in specific sequences like the dance hall—watching Dan Stevens approach with a look in his eyes like you are his sun and stars when you have only just met. It’s a subtly sly commentary on the absurdity of dating: the sudden forced intimacy, the infodumping about respective traumas, the playacting at a future together when you don’t even know if you and your partner are working off the same script.
I’m Your Man never comes on too strong, though that means it occasionally errs on the side of underdoing it. The greatest suspension of disbelief is that an organization would have tailored a robot to one individual’s unique specifications (down to his hardware, even) for a mere three weeks. When Dan and Alma clash, he dispassionately mentions that if she rejects him, his memory banks could be wiped, and presumably his chassis melted down into the mold for someone else’s dream man. Yet this exorbitant experiment is not so different from devoting massive funds and years of one’s life into the kind of research Alma undergoes, that hinges on a single paper making the personal sacrifices worth it.
The jokes about Tom’s packaging are the same as the asides about his software; teasing out the difference between him performing emotions and actually experiencing them is a intriguing philosophical detail, but it doesn’t get enough consideration to be a big plot question. Where I’m Your Man does go deep is in the moments when Alma lowers her guard and the two experiment with constructing a hypothetical past in which they could have met, like any other normal couple.
I’m Your Man doesn’t succeed in filling in all of the lofty narrative blanks it establishes about an entire species of robots seeking acceptance from their flesh-and-blood counterparts; that would require an entire anthology series. But the film remains true to its source material, presented with the same tight focus of a poignant short story about one particular pairing. Because the real hypothesis isn’t at all about whether a robot can be everything to someone, but whether a human can accept the robot where he’s at, and if he can be enough for her.
I’m Your Man is in theaters and streaming on VOD (Google Play, iTunes, YouTube Movies, etc).