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Foe ★★



Director: Garth Davis

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal, Aaron Pierre

Released: 20th October 2023

Before watching Foe at the London Film Festival, I was surprised to notice that all the films I had seen until then had been, if not astonishing, at least good. I also knew that this was soon to end, given the less-than-favourable reactions that Foe had received after its premiere at the New York Film Festival. And yet, I kept going back to the seemingly interesting trailer for the movie – one that seemed to promise an intriguing plot set between a thriller and a science-fiction dystopic tale –  and could not help but ask myself: could it really be that bad?

Foe is set in a non-specific near future where life as we know it has completely changed. As the intertitles at the beginning promptly inform us, artificial intelligence has taken over most jobs. In the face of a climatic crisis on Earth, the government has explored living conditions in space. At the film’s beginning, the audience is introduced to the main couple, Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan) and her husband, Junior (Paul Mescal). Their lives are turned upside down when a government official, Terrance (Aaron Pierre), informs them that Junior has been selected to go to a space station. He will be replaced by an artificial intelligence android that looks and acts exactly like him on Earth.

Conceptually, Foe could have been an exciting film. The film’s premise could have allowed for an exploration of the use of artificial intelligence to replace people and its consequences, but the film falls short of doing that. This would have been interesting and timely, given the current anxieties around the use of AI, as seen by the ongoing SAG strikes in the United States. Another exciting theme, which the director Garth Davis talked about regarding this movie, is that of consciousness and all that this would entail: do AI clones have consciousness? The film answers to this feel unsatisfactory, especially as other movies, like this year’s The Creator or Never Let Me Go (2010), properly explore this topic interestingly and touchingly.

Its only saving grace – if there is anything worth saving in the film– is the acting, which undoubtedly elevates this product. Both Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan deliver compelling performances in Foe, especially when acting opposite each other. The scenes where we see Henrietta and Junior conflicting with each other are the most powerful, as the actors create an exciting dynamic. Their on-screen chemistry is also fascinating as they delve deep into what this married couple’s relationship looks like after so many years together.

Admittedly, the biggest problem with Foe is its script and world-building. The film feels messy: while the initial intertitles deliver the premise, the audience does not know much of the world the story is set in, except for its basic premise. The little that the film tells us about its characters and its setting always feels expositionary: throughout the film, I kept feeling like the most exciting parts of the story were being exposed to the audience rather than shown, including the twist towards the end of the film. This is why the latter felt poorly executed – despite the brilliant performance by the actors involved – and underwhelming.

Foe also shares a problem with many other sci-fi or dystopian movies: having its setting seemingly focused only on the United States. Part of the genius of great science fiction films like The Creator or Arrival (2016) is their ability to transcend national borders and explore the future they imagine worldwide. While Foe may not have been the proper film to explore this, it feels incredibly self-contained. There are few mentions of anywhere else, except the deserted land where the main characters live, or anyone else, since the characters only interact with each other for the whole film.

Ultimately, this choice undermines the very stakes of the film: if the whole story is seemingly contained between two people whom the audience knows little about – we do not even know how they met or anything about their families – how are we supposed to care about what happens to them? During its whole runtime, Foe kept losing interest because I did not feel involved in the future of these characters, as we see so little of their life or relationships before they get the life-changing news that prompts the film.

I also kept wondering how these themes and plot points would affect other people in the world of Foe, which is something the audience never finds out. Not only do we know little about the role and importance of AI in this society, but the entire world and characters of this film exist only in the confines of the relationship between Henrietta and Junior. They are husband and wife first and Henrietta and Junior second, which makes for much less compelling characters than if it had been the other way around.

Foe is frustrating at best and insignificant at worst. I wish the film could have given us more and delved deeper into the fascinating themes it sets out to explore. This movie would have perhaps benefitted from a further reworking of the script that would have allowed the film to feel more coherent, better structured, and move through its story with a quicker pace. It is a movie that fans of Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan might enjoy for the stellar acting performances of the actors, if nothing else.

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