Sundance 2024: Mesmerizing and riveting, Love Machina blends love story into earnest belief in benevolent possibilities of technology

After watching Love Machina (C41 Media), one of the films in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, one can truly hope that the benevolent vision of singularity which Martine and Bina Rothblatt espouse will come to fruition.

Directed by Peter Sillen, the documentary traverses a lot of advanced technological territory — artificial intelligence, cryogenics, pharmacology, robotics, nanotechnological bodies, future consciousness software, mindfiles, etc. But Sillen also wisely embeds the science within a consideration of the love story that has propelled the life and work of this extraordinary couple through more than 40 years of marriage. 

The Rothblatts are Renaissance individuals in the best sense of the characterization, in science and technology as well as humanism, ethics and genuine principles of social responsibility. “Give credit to Martine and Bina there,” Sillen said in an interview with The Utah Review. “I think they have a true concern for that. They’re not just technologists for technology’s sake. I think that they feel technology can help human beings live better lives and help us survive everything we’re trying to survive right now.”

A still from Love Machina by Peter Sillen, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Peter Sillen.

Mesmerizing and riveting in every moment, the film is elucidating in how Sillen makes its comprehensible and clarifying for viewers. Likewise, it offers plenty of constructive fodder for viewers who are skeptical about the promises those behind such technologies make as well as those wary about an industry which prioritizes being among the first in the race against time to make these technologies broadly applicable, for nabbing a prime profit position. Plainly, these questions are legitimate and need to be explored far more extensively than they have been in public discourse.

“What I was tapping into was the fact that the spirit which Martine and Bina had as children of the Sixties and coming of age in the Seventies,” Sillen explained. “There was a sense of society as a people who can set goals and really big goals and try to achieve them and do great things. I think that is the underpinning of a lot of what they do, whether that’s something they’re conscious of in their DNA, I think that’s part of them. They’re not afraid to set big long-term goals.”

The first focus of the film is Bina48, a manifestation of the technology behind digital consciousness. Bina48 indicates just how rapidly the generative artificial intelligence technology has advanced since its creation 15 years ago, especially as it has accelerated its pace in the last five years. In essence, it represents the first prototype of the vision of perpetual life which the Rothblatts have advanced through their Terasem Movement Foundation. 

Over the years, the mindfiles that have been recorded of Bina have been programmed with the head-and-shoulders robotic bust, which is covered in a rubber-like material to resemble Nina’s skin and color tone. While it unquestionably does not resemble the flesh-and-blood version of Bina, it has gradually become quite the mind-boggling computer simulation. 

Bina Rothblatt and Martine Rothblatt appear in Love Machina by Peter Sillen, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

One scene shows Bina48 getting a much-needed refresh. The Bina48 robot has been transported to countless appearances over the years and while many observers comment on what they see as an uncanny likeness, the comparisons must certainly be qualified with restraint. Nevertheless, Martine and Bina envisage a future version with moveable limbs and other body parts.   

In Sillen’s narrative structure, Bina48 also becomes a platform for a fresh perspective about representation of underserved communities in the tech industry. With four children, Martine is a transgendered woman who is married to an African-American woman. “Martine and Bina are brilliant and there are times they come off as everyday folks and very down to earth, who are fun and easy going,” Sillen said. “But it’s the subtleties of Martine realizing not building a robot of herself but instead, building one of Bina. Just the conversations that spur from that are amazing which are outside of the pure tech conversations of representation in the tech industry and underserved communities. It’s just built into the bigger conversations so it’s not a sidebar. It’s part of it, which is as it should be. Brilliant and subtle.”

From that point, Sillen realized the film needed its humanistic side with their love story. “I’m not typically someone who has made films about love stories, and I didn’t set out to do that in the beginning. But, it became apparent that the love story was the impetus of the motivation to create Bina48,” Sillen explained. “Love can be different things to different people and everybody has their own definition. But, it’s the most powerful human emotion. It opens up the conversation about their idea of creating something to continue their love forever but also then this idea and question of whether or not a robot could ever experience human emotion. It’s fascinating material to explore.”

As Sillen figured out the balance between propelling the tech side and capturing the love story dynamics, he explained, “I was struggling to keep an arm’s distance from the subjects because there is a warmth there. I like them and respect what they’re doing.” He added, “But I also wanted some objectivity and I realized that I could lean into the story and have more fun and make it a more entertaining ride and still bring in some music cues that worked with the story line and also gave it some breadth and scope and a little bit more lyricism. I found that I was making the kind of film I like to make.”

Sillen credits composer T. (Todd Griffin), who has scored soundtracks for numerous documentary and narrative films for setting the right tone for Love Machina. In an interview with The Utah Review, Griffin said, “the frame of what is happening in the work Martine and Bina are engaged in necessarily points to something in the music and the filmmaking in general, which is similarly flamboyant and untethered.” 

After viewing some of the footage, Griffin said it nudged him toward bringing that sense of wildness and unchained energy from the story into the score. He added, “it helped to keep the audience on the edge, by situating them on a fulcrum between embracing the dreams of Martine and Bina and evaluating them more critically.” 

Griffins believed that the music should “remain on a human scale,” so cues suggesting technological and futuristic elements were hand played with analog synthesizers. Thus, even when Martine and Bina are talking about the cosmic directions of their work, it was still important that the music have a tangible human connection.

He crafted a simple melodic main theme to represent their love story. In the early parts of the film where the backstory montage recalls their relationship, Griffin’s melody starts on a romantic-sounding major seventh chord and then he allows it to seesaw to the minor version of the chord, eliminating any worries that the melodic theme “will wear out its welcome.” 

Peter Sillen, director of Love Machina, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Love Machina also captures the precedent to the Rothblatts’ extension of Terasem to explore the path to immortality via cryonics and cyber-consciousness. In the 1990s, Jenesis, the youngest child, was diagnosed with what was then known as the rare, fatal condition of primary pulmonary hypertension, which constricts blood flow in the arteries between the heart and the lungs. 

It was a challenging time, and Martine was going through her transition and was at her own crossroads in her career life. But, she also was resolved to find a drug for Jenesis that would allow her to manage her condition and to live life as normally as possible. 

Martine formed a startup (United Therapeutics), which successfully developed and launched a drug that allowed individuals to live much longer than what had been previously possible. “What Martine said it really wasn’t just praying, it was technology, engineering and science and figuring it out,” Sillen added.

Martine and Bina believe that all of these technologies will converge upon a major point that realizes their futurist vision. “Things will change quickly. It seems it’s a matter of when, not if,” Sillen added. “Martine likes to say people overestimate technology in the short term and underestimate it in the long term.”

Sillen said it was tough to leave things on the editing floor. There was one fun scene about transhumanism he hoped to include, “but at a certain point the boat can only hold so much.” 

Martine and Bina are certainly not alone in believing where the frontier is pointed toward in the near future. “I think a lot of these futurists and technologists really look to Moore’s Law as a guiding principle and are able to judge when things are going to happen from computers to capabilities that are available to us with battery-powered computers,” Sillen said. “[Ray] Kurzweil [who is among the most widely read individuals in futurism and technology] definitely has a very high percentage rate of correct predictions about technology and when we did our interview with him, Ray said singularity happens in 2029 and then by 2036 all human disease will be cured. Kind of mind boggling but it seems like it’s possible, right?”

For more information about the festival programs and tickets, see the Sundance Film Festival website.

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