We take a look at Garth Davis' new AI driven psychological thriller...
Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal, Aaron Pierre
Running time: 110 minutes
Director Garth Davis’s most recent work, Foe, tries to straddle romance and speculative fiction. The result is a film whose interesting premise and beautiful cinematography are let down by confused storytelling. That being said, Foe is certainly not a bad film. Rather, it feels as though, much like the world of the film, something is a little off.
The year is 2065 and Earth’s habitable land and resources are scarce. Our characters Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal) are a young married couple living in a dystopian Midwest. The couple's existence in this landscape seems bleak, slow and sweaty; their marriage stale and unloving. Their isolated farm looks as though it sits 40 years in the past, rather than 40 years in the future; much of the film reflects this sense of vintage: the decor, their clothes, and the 60s soul soundtrack.
As a result of this disjoint between past and future, Foe successfully embeds the uncanny into its landscape. This disjoint offers us a vision of an apocalyptic future that is not all flying cars and smog, but one that feels closer to our reality. Maybe things will not look so different in our own future - it seems to say.
A layer woven into this dystopia is the introduction of artificial intelligence which acts as the central anxiety of the film. At their door in the middle of the night, out of a self-driving car, appears Terrence (Aaron Pierre). He is a government official who informs Junior that he has been conscripted: he must go to space. This conscription is supposed to help implement “off-earth habitation” as the next step for human survival on their dead planet.
This is not all: Hen will not be left alone on Earth, instead, Junior will be replaced by a convincing AI substitute. He will act, think, and be just like the real Junior. In order to create this substitute, and make it convincing, Terrence must stay and observe their relationship.
From this point onwards, the film revels too enthusiastically in our confusion. No more context or world building is provided to explain narrative blind spots. Instead, we watch as the promised arrival of Junior’s doppelgänger pulls at the threads of their marriage, and it begins to unravel.
The strength of their performances, and the haunting cinematography by Mátyás Erdléy, do not erase our confusion
Interviewed by the charming and ominous Terrance, Hen confesses that Junior: “doesn’t really see me anymore [...] It’s as if he’s replaced me with someone else.” For Freud, the doppelgänger shows us how “the self may thus be duplicated, divided, and interchanged”. Simply, doubles scare us because they threaten our identity.
The film makes clear comparisons to how identity changes within marriage and how identity is threatened by AI doppelgängers - Junior is soon to be “replaced with someone [something] else”.
Much like the promise of an AI replica of Junior as well as the real one, the film creates doubles in its storytelling. The film seems to create its own doppelgänger: what the couples say and what the couples do contradict one another. Although Hen complains about their relationship, we watch scene after scene of a couple in love. Despite the narrative confusion, it is in these scenes that the film excels.
Aside from a few twangs of Irish in their midwestern accents, Ronan and Mescal deliver a convincing and tender romance. There are moments of real intimacy as they whisper in bed together, as well as some typical dystopian fodder as they run through deserted landscapes with reckless abandon to have sex.
The strength of their performances, and the haunting cinematography by Mátyás Erdléy, do not make up the confusion. The film finally reveals the twist it has been building up to, but it feels as though it has come far too late. All the narrative that has come before suddenly feels as though it has been forced through the neck of a bottle, squashed.
The ideas in Foe are interesting: using the threat of AI as a contemplation of how marriages fall apart. However, just because an idea is there doesn’t always mean it is well executed. Perhaps there is another version of Foe out there, its doppelgänger, whose narrative has more clarity, and whose final twist is not so heavy-handed.
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