Amusement parks are intoxicating places. The flashing neon lights, the cacophony of laughter and excited shrieks, the smell of freshly fried funnel cake, the dizzying choices of which giant metal contraption to ride next. It’s sensory overload in the best possible way, a place where anything seems possible—including a budding romance between a young woman and one of the giant attractions.
Zoe Wittock explores such a relationship in her debut feature Jumbo, where a young woman slowly begins to accept herself as she falls in love with the “Move It” carnival ride, which she lovingly names Jumbo. Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) is quiet and shy, still living at home with a caring yet commandeering mother. She works the graveyard shift at her local amusement park, reveling in the silence and the solitude. This is where she meets Jumbo, a stoic machine that she believes is alive. She finds acceptance with Jumbo and is able to be herself around the machine. She doesn’t have to worry about being reprimanded, shamed or teased. She can simply be with the one she loves.
Jumbo is not the first film to address the love between human and machine. As early as 1927 with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, there has always been an onscreen fascination with the romantic infatuations between humans and their technological creations—and it persists today. Just think about the recent Disney+ sensation Wandavision. However, many of these films are centered on heterosexual ideas of romance with gynoids and robots. Men fall in love with perfectly crafted female-coded beings with large breasts, flat stomachs and enough programming to make them interesting but not too smart. These creations are idealized visions of humanity where every feature can be crafted to personal preference; they are objects of a male gaze.
Films such as Alex Garland’s Ex Machina use these gendered androids to create stories about the powerful, and carefully constructed, sex appeal of the machine. Ava (Alicia Vikander) from Ex Machina is a creation of tech mogul Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). In the basest of terms, she is his property because she is an object of his design, despite her evolving AI and critical thinking skills. Her job is to manipulate, though Bateman does not comprehend just how evolved she truly is. She takes that directive to convince a young programmer that she is essentially human to achieve her own goal of bodily autonomy. With her human face and mechanical body, Ava creates a tension between the real and the constructed, and what it means to be subjected to the gaze of the person that made you.
The danger of robot love isn’t just used in highbrow sci-fi films. In the 1997 comedy Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, the fembots are sexy gynoids in pink, feathery lingerie and go-go boots who have “machine gun jubblies” AKA guns hidden in their breasts. In a film that parodies flashy spy thrillers and their suave protagonists, the fembots then are a parody of the femme fatale, the token female character who is meant to serve both as love interest and enemy. In taking that trope and transforming it into a shallow robot that is constructed to arouse the notoriously horny Austin Powers, these fembots illustrate how women in these types of films exist solely to fuck and to kill. In that same vein, as the femme fatale often meets her downfall at the hands of the spy, so do these fembots as they literally explode due to Powers’ sex appeal. Any semblance of strength, both human and mechanical, is immediately ripped away after a glance at the nude male body. The fembots only play a small role in the film, but their inclusion speaks volumes about the expectations of androids within a sexual context. Regardless of genre, the idea of love between human and android is based around the idea of manipulating the human’s libido and the machine’s identity.
Something interesting happens when the idealized body is erased but the female coding remains, as seen in Spike Jonze’s Her. There is no female object of the male gaze, but there is still awareness of gender through Scarlett Johansson’s recognizably smoky voice, which makes this love feel more palatable. Despite being an evolved form of consciousness, Samantha’s inherent “femaleness” makes her and her relationship easier to understand. Without a sexualized object, the film is able to function in a similar space as Jumbo in the creation of a genuine romance between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his new operating system, Samantha (Johansson). Her’s romance is unconventional as they cannot hug, kiss or hold each other; this is not a romance based on sexual gratification, but on genuine emotional connection, something not typically explored in science fiction. Operating systems and robots are seen as purely mechanical beings, and therefore have very limited understanding of human emotions and how to express them. In removing her body but still tethering Samantha to the idea of gender, Jonze begins to explore the possibility of love between man and the more abstract idea of technology, something that cannot be contained in a physical form but instead exists as the amorphous Cloud.
As the humanoid body disappears and their voices quiet, mechanical love endures through a fascinating romantic obsession with some non-anthropomorphic machines: Cars. While not explicitly gendered themselves, cars are a symbol of masculinity, with their vibrating engines, piping hot undercarriage, luxurious leather seats and shiny top coat. Such a relationship can be seen in queer filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s short film “Kustom Kar Kommandos,” where men in tight shirts and jeans caress the parts of a car as if it is a lover. There is something about cars that make them acceptable to love so tenderly; such an expensive piece of equipment must be cherished—even worshipped.
This vehicular lust is taken to its extreme in genre films such as Christine and Crash. Importantly, the characters in both films are not romantically in love with their respective cars, but are instead obsessed with the idea of them. Car owner Arnie is granted newfound confidence by the titular vehicle in Christine. In Crash, cars are the vehicles, pun intended, for sexual satisfaction for this group of fetishists. But, within each character’s obsession comes violence. Here, humans are caught in a vicious cycle as they realize that destruction is the only way to gain pleasure from the objects of their desire. There is no way for Arnie to be free of his obsession and he is destroyed by the one he loves. Only tearing metal and broken glass can arouse the fetishists; violence is intrinsically linked to orgasm, which only leads to their deaths or grave injuries. Whether between human and android or human and car, there is something dangerous and taboo about this love. Humans are meant to be in love with biological humans who are full of organs, blood and tissue. Falling in love with anything else is a threat to the patriarchal system on which the world is constructed. This type of love is rebellious—and frankly, that’s hot.
I would be remiss in failing to mention Cameron Diaz grinding spread-eagle on the windshield of a muscle car in The Counselor. Importantly, though, she is not having sex with the car for any kind of commentary on humanity’s lust for machines; it’s instead a moment of spectacle where the audience can laugh and incredulously tell their friends they watched Diaz hump a car while Javier Bardem watched.
With Jumbo, Wittock wants to avoid any kind of condemnation or spectacle. Instead, the film carves out its own caring space within tropes of mechanical love, where Jeanne does not experience any trickery or destruction in her courtship with Jumbo. In simply allowing Jeanne and Jumbo’s romance to flourish like any other onscreen relationship, new queer possibilities for romance arise. It is not just about people falling in lust with machines, but about letting people genuinely fall in love without judgement. The premise sounds silly and ridiculous, practically inviting in mockery and jeering, and Wittock plays with that expectation. In a film that could easily fall into comedic spectacle, she instead creates a touching story not just about loving a carnival ride, but about learning to accept yourself.
Jeanne’s sex scene with Jumbo in particular illustrates new perspectives on queer sex. This is not about focusing on genital preference, but about focusing on how to best achieve pleasure for an individual. A similar moment is seen in Her as Theodore and Samantha have the equivalent of phone sex, achieving intimacy without actually touching one another. They are able to verbally articulate their desires and experience pleasure, which echoes the experience of long distance relationships; sometimes, technological connection is all we have to experience intimacy with a partner.
In contrast to the lack of touch in Her, Wittock expands on the idea of intimate touch through the use of the other four senses: Jumbo’s flashing lights and creaking metallic body are captured through dizzying cinematography. Here, the expression of sexual release is more abstract (except for gushing oil, connoting ejaculation), but Jeanne and Jumbo’s sex is proudly shown on screen, stating that there should be no shame is depicting nonnormative intimacy to viewers. If audiences are able to watch androids seduce humans and men become obsessed with their demonic cars, then they should be able to celebrate a new perspective of genuine love between human and mechanical creations.
Sex with machines is not a new idea in cinema, particularly as filmmakers use the medium to examine the future of love and what it would mean to be able to craft a technically perfect version of a sexual partner. But, as more recent films like Her and Jumbo work to expand upon that trope, mechanical love becomes bigger than sexual spectacle; it is about exploring new possibilities for personal and sexual identity that break free from patriarchal and societal expectations about what it means to be in love.
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.