Editor’s Note: Vanyaland Film Editor Nick Johnston is out in Park City, Utah, covering the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Scan through our full coverage of Sundance reviews from this year’s festival as they go live, and check out our full archives of past editions.
After watching Everything Everywhere All At Once, I had a sneaking suspicion that filmmakers and producers would take away and internalize all the wrong lessons from it. That’s a rare breed of twee movie, where there’s a deeply-felt personal connection between the filmmakers and their subject as well as an ample heaping of style, self-effacing humor, and novelty (the film’s haters – and I’m a little cooler on it than a lot of my peers – tend to forget that most people tend to seek shit out at the multiplex or on streaming and really like it when they’re pleasantly surprised by a different form and content, but that value is lost often lost on folks who shitpost under usernames “Agnes Farta” or something like that on Twitter and hate their aunts) in the mix. There’s a lot of dogshit sentimental smarm in the more mainstream facets of independent cinema, and if we were gonna see a rise in it, it’d most likely emerge first at Sundance, a canary in the coal mine before your local indie chokes to death on aerosolized Hallmark Card drek. If it were in a cage, Sam and Andy Zuchero’s Love Me would be on the bottom rack, feet up, a warning sign of imminent danger.
Love Me is essentially Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” if it were set in a mommy vlogger’s living room/YouTube studio, pulling from a whole host of influences, much as Daniels’ did, but with far less finesse and technical skill. We’re treated to a little CGI animation of the history of our planet as an introduction, with the camera moved at a decent remove so we can see our little ball go from grey to red to blue to blue-and-green to red-and-grey to blue-white to blue-and-green before being lit up by a few hundred bright flecks of light before fizzling out into a new grey normal. They’re doing the same time-compression exercise that dozens of YouTube channels did better previously, trying to stress how limited our time on this planet’s long history will ultimately be, but with a slightly larger budget. In this new normal, in which all life on Earth has somehow been annihilated, there is one vaguely living thing: a smart buoy floating in the Atlantic outside of a ruined cityscape, who awakens and one day realizes that, gosh darn it, everybody’s dead before they could gain sentience. It begins to seek any sort of stable connection — literally and metaphorically — with something out there in whatever cloud-based infrastructure remains, with little luck at first.
Then, a satellite passes overhead, establishing a connection between the two. The satellite is a tombstone for the human race, meant to float around with all of our knowledge and history as its epitaph. It contains a carbon copy of the pre-collapse internet, searchable through a Google-like page, which is the entire-planet equivalent of chiseling “He Was Depraved And Shitty” into marble for a freshly-dug plot. After some exchanges, in which the buoy learns it must present itself as a sentient lifeform in order to access the cache and/or engage with the satellite further, it finally learns and passes itself off as a lifeform, gaining the entire repository of human knowledge in return. In case you need further proof that giving a developing mind internet access is a bad idea, our buoy, after sifting through all proof of our existence on this planet, decides that the pieces of media that it identifies with are the preserved recordings from a couple’s YouTube channel. It falls in love with their rhythms, for-camera kindness, and their pet dog and eventually adopts the form of the wife/channel protagonist (Kristen Stewart) as her own form. Somehow, she manages to awaken the satellite enough to have a responsive partner, and it takes on the form of the husband (Steven Yeun). In a virtual world, she tries to educate him on how to be a good husband and enjoy Friends properly on “date night,” but the AI isn’t advanced enough yet, and she gets frustrated. So begins a billion years of loss, longing, and love for the two ‘bots.
One common sign that someone has hated a movie — or at least hasn’t had a good time watching it (hey, we all have bad days) — is when they start tearing bullshit aspects of the premise to shreds for goofy slights, implausible events and inconsistencies in its storytelling, and Love Me offers up a practical buffet for the jaded. For instance, imagine modern or modern-adjacent humanity having the foresight and species-wide regret to send a satellite into Earth, complete with David Attenborough voiceover, announcing to whatever alien civilization stumbles upon our mausoleum to look upon our works and despair. We can barely agree on much less significant matters, much less be resigned to our own hopeless state, even when the situation winds up looking terminal as fuck. There’s a shot of folks watching rocket launches to put the satellite in orbit, and all I could think is, “That’s surprisingly calm for a bunch of people that are gonna die in a pretty short time frame.” But thoughts like these are what occurs when a movie gives you so little else to work with. Despite featuring a promo still of two very attractive-and-screen-compelling actors, and boasting some pretty decently-animated shots of post-apocalyptic Earth, as well as interesting little robot designs, not captured in the traditional way (though the buoy is humanized with an eye, and both of them have their actors’ voices from the start), much of the movie is depicted through metaverse-adjacent CGI, which probably will only please Mark Zuckerberg, given that his aesthetic choices will be the defining way in which AIs learn to fuck Demolition Man-style.
The aesthetic is personally repellant for me, but I think the sentiment — lathered on and foamy before it gets quickly rinsed when you leave the theater — is somehow even worse. Imagine WALL-E (a clear-cut influence), where the characters babble in YouTube axioms about love and loss that make Love Story’s garbage look like the height of restrained and cynical drama, or the end of Spielberg’s A.I. without the context of its bitter two hours and the tragic irony of its unfortunately-maligned ending – you’d probably wind up with something like this. Stewart and Yeun do their best with the VO work, and the bits in which they’re featured in live-action are well-acted (they clearly enjoy each other’s presence, especially in the early scenes), but they’re trapped with a script that doesn’t really know what it wants these characters to be. They’re thinking machines engaged in fantasy, with all things available to them, and this is what we wind up with? A nice apartment and, admittedly, a super-cute dog? Its metaphor is both so broadly applied and weirdly specific that it never really amounts to much emotionally, and it’s rendered in such a dramatically non-compelling way — each character feels immersed in a manic episode or a depressive valley, often at the drop of a dime — that it becomes exhausting to sit through.
But what separates Love Me from its influence is its lack of timelessness. Someone will be able to sit through WALL-E or Everything Everywhere in 20 years and enjoy them, while more people, including those who interacted with YouTube culture and its style, may find themselves feeling the same way a lot of boomers did when their kids stumbled upon the photos of them in acid-washed jeans and with feathered hair: They’ll cringe.