Artificial intelligence is here, folks. If you don’t believe it by its pervasiveness into your life, Hollywood is here to remind you. Garth Davis’ Foe is just the latest in a string of movies focused on AI, but unlike more actiony predecessors, his film, co-written with the source material’s author Iain Reid, is focused on matters of the heart rather than battles with deadly robots or globe-hopping conspiracies. A single married couple in a not-too-distant future face something much more personal and scary than out of control tech; a love tested by boredom, dissatisfaction, and stagnation as the rest of the world moves on.
That married couple is played by quite the beautiful pair of actors. Oscar nominees Saiorse Ronan and Paul Mescal are Hen and Junior, respectively. In the year 2065, much of humanity has fled the dying planet for space stations, but they are among the few who continue to reside on Earth at Junior’s family farm. Not that they do any real farming or anything. She works a dull job at a nearby diner, returning home to make use of their recycled water, keeping one poor tree alive as best she can with it. That tree is about as lifeless as their homestead. Junior works a job at a chicken processing plant, and it’s hard to tell what is more dead inside.
Davis and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély find beautiful imagery everywhere, even in Hen and Junior’s desolate, dusty surroundings. Swirling, wind-swept salt flats of pure pink make for a peaceful, if ominous backdrop. Sure enough, the couple’s tedium is broken by the arrival of Terrance (Aaron Pierre), a mysterious company man who informs them that Junior has been chosen to join colonists on a far away space station, setting up a new home for humanity. However, Hen isn’t invited to be a part of it. She’ll have to stay home all by her lonesome.
Or…not? Here’s the thing about Foe; if you dig around too much into the plot you’ll find lots to pick with. It is much better when focused on the heartbreaking interactions between Hen and Junior, who have drifted apart and can’t find their way back together. The other details just mess things up. So that Hen isn’t lonely, Terrance’s company will provide for her an AI simulant of Junior, a copy, to keep her company. And Terrance has to live with them for a while to make sure they get everything right.
Why would the company go through all of this trouble when they could just…I dunno, give them both long-range cell phones? Or have Hen tag along just to keep Junior happy? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, honestly.
That said, the tension in the house is thick with Terrance’s added presence. From the beginning, something hasn’t felt right about Hen and Junior’s marriage. She seems ready to crawl out of her skin to get away from him. He seems angry and jealous of everyone, especially the handsome Terrance. Did I mention all of these people are extremely gorgeous? But there’s more to it, and Davis unfolds the mystery with cautious, suspenseful turns that reel you in despite a few dips in the narrative. This movie moves at its own deliberate pace, and while it’s definitely too slow at times, it also allows for Ronan and Mescal to really dig into their performances.
With such a small cast mostly set in a single location, Foe leans on the strength of its stars. Ronan’s Hen could’ve been portrayed as a pitiful victim, but she’s a woman with an interior life and a strength of her own. For Mescal, he’s got the enigmatic, angry young man thing down to a science, and a final act twist adds a new layer of complexity to his performance. Foe is imperfect, a bit too reserved at times, and works best when kept to its simplest elements. With lush visuals and performances just as thriving, any shortcomings can be forgiven for a sci-fi romance that has its heart in the right place.
Foe is in theaters now.