Artificial intelligence as a source of existential angst is having quite the moment in pop culture. A central issue in this past summer’s two major film industry work stoppages, A.I. was both the “big bad” of the most recent Mission: Impossible film as well as a demagogued adversary in The Creator. Plus, there’s been a raft of recent clone-based films like They Cloned Tyrone, Swan Song, and Dual that predict, with varying dystopian overtones, a future where anyone can be replaced by a more compliant version of themselves. Stumbling into the fray is Foe, courtesy of director Garth Davis (Lion), which posits a truly absurd premise: on a dying Earth with limited natural resources, the government creates a carbon copy of a human being to serve as a life-sized boyfriend pillow, meant to spell the little woman while her husband is away on an extra-long work trip. It’s a would-be thought-starter about the nature of love and the soul that inspires no thought and a romance that stirs no passion despite near-constant onscreen lovemaking. Foe fails to hold together on a scene-by-scene basis or achieve even the most generous interpretation of coherence.
The year is 2065, and the planet is a barren wasteland where much of the vegetation has died off (water is at such a premium that it needs to be retained after showers just to try and keep a handful of trees alive). A car drives up to the Midwestern farmhouse — the film shoots Australia for flyover country USA, not convincingly — belonging to the young married couple of Junior and Hen (the film casts Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan as working-class Americans, similarly unconvincing). Terence, a well-dressed British man played by Aaron Pierre knocks on the door and, against Junior’s reservations — he grabs his rifle as soon as he sees the headlights coming up the drive but, much to his frustration, finds that his wife has unloaded the gun — is allowed inside. Terence is there to present “an incredible” offer, one which sounds an awful lot like involuntary conscription. The government has selected Junior’s name from a lottery to take a multi-year voyage to a space station orbiting the Earth that represents humanity’s last refuge. It’s unclear why Junior, who is entirely without unique or in-demand skills, should make this journey without his wife, although Terence makes it sound like a diversity pick for manual laborers. All we know is that the trip will take place approximately 15 months hence and that Junior will be incarcerated if he declines. As for Hen, the government has a plan for her: they will create a state-of-the-art clone which looks, sounds, and behaves exactly like Junior, just to make sure she doesn’t get too lonely once he’s gone.
That Hen is even open to the idea probably tells us something about their marriage. We can sense from the couple’s body language and sleeping arrangements that something’s amiss in the relationship. There are physical signs and stray comments that hint at a history of abuse: a beloved piano hidden away and never played in the basement because of how much it upsets Junior, as well as his paranoia and volcanic temper, flaring up over nothing at all; between the flat yet nondescript accent, the longnecks he’s constantly nursing, and a splotchy beard, Mescal’s essentially doing “Alabama Man” drag. Because of the nebulous parameters of the mission, there’s a sort of finite uncertainty for Junior and Hen to navigate. He’s going to be leaving for a long time… but not for a while. This all but forces the couple to reconsider what they had and perhaps rekindle a passion that once existed between them. Admittedly, it’s not a straight line with these two. She wanders around the house braless and perma-caked in sweat, which could either signal how hot and bothered she is or simply that the air conditioning is out, while he splits logs and lounges around the house shirtless. Some days, Hen awakens Junior from a dead sleep by straddling him, or the two of them drive out to a dried-out riverbed to have sex on the ground. Other times, she’s screaming and throwing his belongings around the house, seemingly unprovoked, with the film treating it as if we’re dipping into the middle of a long-running argument where it’s unclear who’s even at fault. A year passes in the blink of an eye and eventually Terence returns, claiming he’ll need to live out of the house for the next few months to observe the couple’s behavior and perform a series of invasive tests and interviews — you know, to program the clone. It’s around this time that Junior starts having nightmarish visions and notices ominous-looking men in business suits lurking around the property.
None of this holds up to even the most glancing of scrutiny. And to be clear, there is an explanation for the inconsistencies, the incredulous leaps in logic, and the jarring shifts in tone, as well as the complete absence of agency for both the main characters (especially Ronan’s), if one can suck it up and make it to the end. But nothing justifies the time spent with this toothless Black Mirror episode, lurching erratically from one moment to the next until it finally arrives at the point. Foe, which like the aforementioned Dual employs an overly precious homophone as a title (foe/faux), is perpetually torn between sub-Malickian naturalism and high-concept twaddle. One can imagine a version of the film where 80% of the dialogue is elided, focusing instead on two estranged lovers, rediscovering their feelings for one another set against a desolate landscape; achieving a form of grace at the end of the world before being forcibly separated. In such a scenario, the entire space station and clone business would be diminished in prominence; merely a thematic device to instill urgency and finality onto two beautiful people who, when told their days together are numbered, can’t stop pawing at one another. But Davis (working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Iain Reid, the author of the novel the film is based on) seems rather committed to laying a trail of breadcrumbs leading toward a twist that only the most disengaged — and to be sure, there‘s ample opportunity to zone out — of viewers won’t already be far ahead of. The characters speak almost exclusively in ponderous riddles, saying absolutely nothing of substance while staring off into the middle distance, yet the film is so overdetermined that we can be certain every line of dialogue will take on a “surprising” new context once the film proudly unveils its dopey endgame.
Mescal and Ronan look terrific in one another’s arms — although it’s never an auspicious sign when one spends nearly every sex scene aware of how strenuously the blocking is working to preserve the modesty of the actors — but they’re both horribly miscast. Playing a couple poor American kids with dirt under their fingernails from working the land, constantly torn between fighting and fucking, sits uncomfortably on the two talented Irish actors, and it speaks to an overarching authenticity problem with the film. Nothing is convincing here; not the eye-rollingly anachronistic needle drops that find Hen and Junior listening to R&B and pop records from the 1950s and ’60s around the house, nor its conception of a small town, with the film unable to decide whether the characters live in a one stoplight burg or a bustling metropolis with futuristic buildings that reach toward the sky — and certainly not the entire “we’re forcing your wife to live with your clone” business. Even the actors’ cursing comes out sounding wrong, as though they’re as surprised as we are at the stream of profanity flying out of their mouths. Yet Foe‘s real sin is that it squanders the actors’ commitment and earthy chemistry on pretentious ruminations and contrived mental exercises that fail to get to the heart of the film’s central question. Can you find happiness with a copy of your lover feels a little beside the point when you’re questioning whether the filmmakers have ever even interacted with another human being before.
DIRECTOR: Garth Davis; CAST: Paul Mescal, Saoirse Ronan, Aaron Pierre; DISTRIBUTOR: Amazon Studios; IN THEATERS: October 6; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 50 min.