There’s not much reason to watch Foe other than to see the performances of the three lead actors, especially Saoirse Ronan. But not even movie star Ronan can do much to rescue director-screenwriter Garth Davis and novelist Iain Reid’s tedious sci-fi exercise—a dyspeptic, dystopian three-person character study about assorted terrible-future dilemmas, none of them very compellingly presented.
The year is 2065 and the world is in terminal disarray. Hen (Ronan) and her husband Junior (Paul Mescal) live in a weathered farmhouse on a distressed landscape where the main features, aside from clumps of uninviting-looking canola, are a few dead trees. Definite signs of drought. Hardly the setting for romance or even an adventure; more like a situation to be endured. Time is running out for planet Earth, and in the night sky above Hen’s and Junior’s heads twinkles a strange galaxy of stars, perhaps offering escape.
Junior works in a poultry plant, Hen waits tables at a local café, but mostly they just sit around and stare off into space. On listless evenings at the house after work, the unhappy couple listens to a selection of pop music oldies: Irma Thomas, David Ruffin and—in the type of clichéd soundtrack commentary that should immediately send audiences out to the lobby to grab some more popcorn—Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World.” Hen and Junior have sex, but even that doesn’t offer much relief.
One night a stranger arrives at their door. Terrance (Aaron Pierre), a government agent, offers Junior, but not Hen, a chance to move off-world to a space colony. It’s more on the order of a mandatory relocation rather than an option. That means a new start for Junior, but for Hen there’s only the prospect of a bio-cloned replication of her husband to keep her company. In order to compensate her for losing her spouse, they will provide her with a “new, improved” Junior. She plainly does not want to be left behind.
Nothing especially ground-breaking about the set-up here. Many, many films adapted from science-fiction sources have toyed with the idea of robots, space invaders and the like interacting with humans and sometimes taking their place. Let’s face it, Foe is no Blade Runner. Nor is it Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix happily accepts the companionship of an artificial humanoid. Nor Ex Machina, with a lifelike fake-Alicia Vikander playing footsy with Oscar Isaac. No, Ronan’s Hen is not at all thrilled with the limited possibilities before her. But the decision has already been made offscreen and soon enough, mysterious figures start to appear in the fields.
Ronan, at age 29, has finally lost her waif-like face and replaced it with the expressions of a woman who has seen enough life to know what she needs. Hen’s anguish is palpable. But sadly, neither Reid’s novel nor Davis’ direction instills enough—dare we say it—raw emotion into the melodrama to help Ireland’s best-known female screen actor make her way through the wasteland. But then again, when trolling the deep waters of artificial intelligence, how much emotion is called for? This film won’t be featured on Ronan’s career highlight reel.
We could say much the same about the other two cast members. Pierre makes a serviceable adversary for the numbed-out couple to react against, but Mescal’s self-loathing Junior must have been subsisting on canola oil and chicken parts too long—he and Hen seem doomed from the first frame. Resistance is so futile, the subject never comes up.
Halfway through the film it occurs to the viewer that Hen, Junior and Terrance may already be AI bots. And why not? The dramatic atmosphere is pretty dry to begin with, and the conflict between the characters is as bland as talking to the Apple products helpline. Foe depicts the world ending with a whimper. We’ll never miss it.