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Foe review – Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan can’t lift a lackluster Black Mirror imitation | Movie

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IIn 2065, water and fertile land are precious resources. The American Midwest, ravaged by heat and drought, is sparsely populated and arid. Additionally, new technologies enable AI to create sentient, indistinguishable copies of humans.

These are the opening facts, delivered in the title cards, of Foe, starring Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan as a married couple enlisted in an off-planet settlement program. The concept resembles a lesser episode of Black Mirror, and indeed the film never escapes the shadow of the hit British TV series, which sparked a wave of undercooked and easily forgotten science fiction. (Does anyone remember the AMC series Soulmates?)

Based on the book by Iain Reid, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Garth Davis (Lion), Foe struggles to rise above this association. Its central tension – that Mescal’s Junior is replaced by an AI replica while he’s away on an experiment on a government space station – is better implemented, with thornier and more searing consequences, in the The superlative 2013 Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, starring Domhnall. Gleeson as an AI facsimile for Hayley Atwell’s late boyfriend.

The first half of the film at least evokes an ominous and lonely mood, if not much in terms of story. Isolated in a 20th-century farmhouse hit by dust storms and heat, Junior and Henrietta (Ronan) lead a meager existence. He handles chickens in a factory farm tower, made believable and nauseating; she works in a restaurant (who are the customers?). She sometimes plays the piano in the basement, beautifully filmed although too often treated for its symbolism; he drinks.

One evening, an incredibly suave government official named Terrance (Aaron Pierre) appears in a self-driving polygonal car with strange news: Junior has been randomly enlisted in an alien life experiment, while the Earth is dying. A year later, he returns to move in and observe, interview, and provoke the couple in the weeks leading up to the mission, in part to help find the best possible replacement for Junior (news of which prompts Junior to utter such choice lines as ” I don’t I don’t want one robot live with my marry“).

That’s essentially the movie – Terrance disrupting an already tense couple’s tenuous hold on each other, amid a creaky old house and barren landscapes. (Victoria, Australia, presents itself as a redder, starker, more arid version of the American Midwest.) What sparks do exist are only conjured by Mescal and Ronan’s best attempts to infuse a circular, scattered narrative with wells of steel emotion. Mescal has yet to film an unconvincing intimate scene and continues his streak here – he and Ronan, fragile and on the edge, can be murderous and sensitive. But his Midwestern accent falters distractingly in the neighborhood of Irish and country. (Ronan fares better though, to be fair, such accents might not be relevant in 2065?)

Both leads do their best here, but even they can’t wring enough feeling out of this desolate sci-fi. There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense during and after 108 minutes: why, in 2065, Junior is driving a beat-up van from the ’90s; why the set and costumes are mid-century, a strange combination of futuristic and period pieces that never merge; why Junior and Hen were chosen; why the American government sends a Briton as a representative for off-planet scientific experiments; why Terrance does almost anything; why the film is called Foe.

This feels like a film that would work better as a book, the text better able to absorb the muteness of Junior and Hen’s crumbling marriage, the grim days of waiting before he leaves, and the strange nudity of the climate crisis better than Davis’ film, which feels more distant and repetitive than provocatively foreign. The final act’s silly twist unwinds any remaining tension, to unfortunately comic ends; At the screening I attended, a few people laughed at what should have been the film’s more serious moments.

This is what happens when gravity is undeserved. Foe lavishes many visually intriguing shots of moments that are supposed to be ominous: wind brushing ruffled grass, blood pooling in the shower, beetles climbing wood, lush crop circles dotting a barren landscape. Characters who look on with doubt, confusion, frustration. There’s plenty of ambition and talent, but without the crunchy story engine, it’s as dry as 2065.

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