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Junior (Paul Mescal) and Hen (Saoirse Ronan) are not a happy couple. The spark of their early love seems to have withered away in the harsh landscape of the near future. The year is 2065, our planet has been ruined, and people are looking to the sky as a way to survive. But to colonize space, the unholy match of government and private companies will first need an army to help build their new spaceship oasis. A stranger named Terrance (Aaron Pierre) arrives to recruit Junior, but not Hen, and given little time to enjoy their days together, the pair faces uncertainty about their relationship and future. Terrance offers them one bit of solace: there will be a flesh-and blood-clone of Junior here on Earth to keep Hen company once the real Junior leaves for space.
If the premise of “Foe” sounds familiar, that’s because sci-fi has grappled with the idea of robots or artificial beings becoming too real since before Philip K. Dick’s monumental book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? From the replicants in “Blade Runner” (an adaptation of Dick’s novel) to the boy who yearned for his mother in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” there’s no shortage of examples of looking for signs of life in man-made creations. However, “Foe” stumbles rather spectacularly by leaning more on melodrama than logic and choosing cliche over originality. Aside from rehashing tropes and offering some laughably bad moments, the film accomplishes little.
Garth Davis (“Lion”) both directed “Foe” and co-wrote the screenplay with Iain Reid, the author of the source material, but something must have been lost on the way from the page to the screen. It’s as if the director doesn’t trust his audience to figure out the story, so not only must there be painfully obvious signs, he opens the movie explaining what’s happened. Now that I knew human-like artificial beings existed in this world, I assumed they’d appear at any moment, and well, I guessed correctly within the first few minutes of the movie. Removing the element of suspense in favor of easy answers takes away much of the story’s thrill.
Things do not improve from there. Mescal and Ronan give this film their all, but it’s almost too much. Davis doesn’t seem to realize that languishing his camera on their pained expressions makes scenes feel overwrought and accidentally comical. It's almost a challenge not to laugh when these awkward close-ups are coupled with dialogue like, “You’re going to hell! This can never be forgiven!” Take, for instance, a close-up of Ronan as she’s trying to pull her face into a smile. She tries repeatedly, but Davis doesn’t cut or allow her the cry her character so badly needs. She just keeps stretching her face into a pained smile like the Joker. This is supposed to be a sad scene, not a descent into madness, but its emotions are mishandled to the point of a punchline.
It’s odd how “Foe” feels so lifeless, so incurious about what it means to be in a relationship with a facsimile of someone who has fallen out of love with you. A lot of the movie feels off—like the weird, hostile dynamic in Junior’s need to control Hen or the awkward racial dynamic of Junior, a white man, and his rage against Terrance, a Black man from the government/private space company, and what Junior thinks is Terrance’s attraction to Hen, a white woman. While cinematographer Mátyás Erdély reimagines the landscape of Australia into the Midwest of the future, Davis tries to make two Irish actors into Americans, but that doesn’t sound right either. They are supposed to be living in one of the most remote places left, but she works at a sizable diner, and he reports to a rather busy chicken factory? The reason for the government to choose Junior is also vague at best, and if they can make a Xerox copy of his relationship, why couldn’t they send the copy to space? Ah, but “Foe” doesn’t do well under questioning.
Not even the many sweaty close-ups of the movie’s hot stars tussling in the sheets can replicate life in this strangely inert film. We are forced to watch Mescal and Ronan try their damnedest to convince viewers to root for their characters, only to watch their onscreen counterparts reduced to being treated like Frankenstein’s Monster, forced to suffer in front of an audience. The misplaced earnestness of lines like, “We never dreamed it would experience love,” further emphasizes how this once-promising script was badly executed. Images of pink landscapes and Ronan lounging on an ancient tree in a satin dress look more like the premise of a magazine spread than moments from a story. As AI and climate crises become an ever-growing concern for our reality, more sci-fi movies will likely ask the same question as before: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Hopefully, they find more interesting answers than “Foe” does.
This review was filed from the 2023 New York Film Festival. "Foe" opens on October 6th in theaters before a Prime Video exclusive launch.