The Pitch: It’s 2065, and artificial intelligence has made most jobs obsolete (much like another recent theatrical release). Moreover, climate change is killing crops and displacing millions of humans with drought, famine, and natural disasters. Holding out against the desolation is a young couple living on an isolated farm in the Midwest: Junior (Paul Mescal) and Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan), whose marriage is as arid as the dried-out fields surrounding them.
But opportunity comes in the form of a mysterious stranger named Terrance (Aaron Pierre), who informs Junior he’s been handpicked by megacorporation OuterMore to work and live in their new orbital space station, a testbed for humanity’s impending migration from a dead Earth. But Hen can’t come, and he’ll be stuck up there for two years. So Terrence is assigned to study the couple, ask questions, and run tests for the next few months — all with the goal of replacing Junior with an AI “human substitute” that can keep Hen company.
We Met at the Right Time: It’s hard not to compare Foe with the last time an Iain Reid novel was adapted to screen: Charlie Kaufman’s explosive, alien I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Reid’s works often explore the choking gasp of isolation — the ways we feel alienated from the world, each other, and even ourselves. Kaufman’s nightmarish picture captured those neuroses perfectly, but Foe puts Reid’s formally daring writing in a much more conventional filmmaking mode, and loses much of its mystery and intrigue.
This time, Reid’s words are placed in the hands of Garth Davis (responsible for the perfectly competent but forgettable Lion), turning what could be a provocative sci-fi headscratcher into a hazy, limp romantic drama that makes little use of its near-future premise. There are some glimmers of inspiration: Mátyás Erdély’s naturalistic cinematography, the brief glimmers of future tech among the arid plains of the Midwest. But it’s all in service of a painfully dull, slowly-paced romantic drama that seems to hide its own high-concept premise from the viewer, as if ashamed that it even wants to roll in all this sci-fi gobbledygook in its tale of a frontier couple on the brink.
Love TrA.I.ngle: The sleepiness of Foe’s presentation would be easier to swallow if we got a real sense of who Hen and Junior are in the first place. Mescal and Ronan are terrific actors, and both use their opportunities to showcase what they can do as performers — Mescal swallows his jealousy and resentment at the confusing situation he’s helpless to control, while Ronan paints a compelling picture of a woman deflecting from what’s really on her mind.
The two get plenty of big, actor-ly moments that look good on a reel: Mescal punching walls and gnashing his teeth in emotional agony, Ronan crying in the shower and smashing pianos in fits of frustration. (Ronan even gets to participate in that ultimate sign of rebellion for struggling wives on screen: Cutting your hair short!) But none of it feels like anything; it wouldn’t even register to the viewer if either, or both, of them were robots.
This is to say nothing of Pierre, who serves up an appropriate mix of charm and guile as the corporate rep who gets a bit too close to his subjects. But the film skirts around the inescapable racial element of their dynamic: Foe is, at least in part, a story that plays into the problematic trope of a handsome, virile Black man coming to take a white man’s wife, and the violent jealousy that ensues.
Perhaps the leads’ lack of chemistry is the point — there’s a sense these two people are fundamentally incompatible, despite their protestations to the contrary. But the script (co-written by Reid and Davis) relies so much on a contrived twist that it has to keep us at a fatal distance from the only characters we’re given to study. Plus, by the time the twist arrives, it’s hard not to feel like the film has wasted your time for about three-quarters of its runtime, and its inevitable resolution lands with a thud.
The Verdict: It’s difficult to overstate how badly Foe fumbles its heady premise and firecracker cast, a film so dependent on its biggest secret that it’s both predictable and hard to grasp by the time the trigger is finally pulled. It’s too airy, too dreamlike to justify its runtime or the hokey, predictable tropes the film traffics in. There are Black Mirror episodes that have explored this idea with greater specificity and grace, and didn’t waste two hours of your one precious life to do it. Foe will invariably feed the thirsty Paul Mescal stans with plenty of real estate for shirtless GIFs. But the rest is empty calories.
Where to Watch: Foe lands in theaters to spice up your dying future marriage on October 6th.