In the uplifting, if somewhat confusing, film Tomorrowland, George Clooney plays a brilliant scientist who suffers from a broken heart. Long ago and far way, he fell in love with a girl named Athena when they were children. Athena was smart and spunky and seemed genuinely to like George Clooney as a boy. But over the next four decades, the relationship never went anywhere: It never developed, it never evolved, they did not live happily ever after. Not even close.
The reason that their romance bites the dust is that Athena is an android, and androids never get any older. It is not that Athena doesn’t have feelings for George Clooney as a boy; as I said, she seems genuinely to like the child George—even though it is immediately clear to all but the dimmest movie-goers that Athena is way out of his weight class. So the relationship simply dies. It’s not a question of liking or disliking one another; it’s just that, well, romances between male humans and female androids do not pan out. At least not onscreen.
A similar dynamic is at work in the recent film Ex Machina. Here, a geeky programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) falls in love with a female android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). The android, seeking to escape from the wilderness research facility in which she is confined by a mad scientist (Oscar Isaac), seems to like Caleb well enough. But as was the case in Tomorrowland, things do not work out. Caleb will learn, to his great disappointment, that Ava, a conscienceless android, is only playing him, manipulating his feelings so that he will help her escape from the weird secluded laboratory in which she has been imprisoned while the mad scientist perfects her. The dork learns, ruefully, that he is only a pawn in her game, just as she had previously been a pawn in the scientist’s game.
Once again, the message is crystal clear: Humans and androids don’t mix.
The exact same thing occurs in 2013’s Her, where a lonely geek played by Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with the perky operating system on his computer. Samantha is smart, she is funny, she has a silky, sexy voice, she can simulate orgasms, and she is always on call. But one day, he finds out that she is carrying on similar “affairs” with thousands and thousands of other men. Samantha sees nothing wrong in this; she is an operating system, not flesh and blood. Disconsolate, he says goodbye to the love of his life forever—and thus another anthropelectro romance goes down in flames.
People are always saying that Hollywood is sexist and does not respect women, but these three films suggest otherwise. What these films seem to be saying is that men who actually prefer to have relationships with androids rather than real women will ultimately pay dearly for their misogyny and stupidity.
The subject is hardly new: Men have been pursuing doomed romantic relationships with female machines since the early days of cinema. Female robots figure prominently in Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982), and even Austin Powers (1997). Of course, the great-granddaddy of current films in this genre is The Stepford Wives, Bryan Forbes’s grim 1975 parable about men who replace their wives with comely cyborgs who are perfect replicas of their spouses. Their murdered spouses.
But a key difference exists in recent films about the distaff brand of the artificially intelligent. In Tomorrowland, Ex Machina, and Her, men are not smitten by robots who remind them of somebody else: They fall in love with the androids themselves. They accept the robots on their own terms. They prefer these robots (or operating devices) to the women they know. They may not realize this at the beginning, but they will realize it by the end.
This is why their virtually identical fates are so meaningful. In this trio of films, Hollywood warns men to forget about having romantic relationships with female androids because things will go south in a hurry. An android will not stand by your side when you are dying of some horrible disease. An android will not be faithful to you because of adamantine social mores. And an android will only laugh at your stupid jokes because it has been programmed to pretend that it finds you amusing. In reality, it thinks you’re a dope. Left to its own devices, it would rather play backgammon or learn Sanskrit. It doesn’t need you. It doesn’t even like you.