Foe review: Lots to admire but not much to enjoy
The sci-fi drama starring Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan is overwrought and artificial.
Despite a few shots of a space station, a high-tech food processing plant, a couple of flying cars and a self-driving vehicle, Foe is not hard science fiction. It’s very soft and squishy science fiction, more focused on feelings and relationships, with lots of melodramatic sobbing, hollow-eyed acting and overwrought incidental music.
It asks big questions about the human condition, but the biggest question for the audience is more likely to be: how much longer does this go on for?
Set in a near-future Earth ravaged by climate change, the film opens with a couple living on a treeless plain in the American Midwest. Junior (Paul Mescal) works in a giant chicken-processing plant and Hen (Saoirse Ronan) waits at a diner, and while their marriage is solid, there are clearly issues bubbling away under the surface.
They’re visited by a mysterious government employee, Terrance (Aaron Pierre), who turns up at their 200-year-old, dilapidated farmhouse one night. Terrance informs them that Junior has been conscripted to work on a space station. But not immediately.
Terrance will spend the next two years putting Junior through a series of tests to help create an android replica of him that will keep Hen company while he’s away. As time goes on, Junior becomes increasingly paranoid about leaving Hen behind in the care of his AI doppelgänger (presumably the title is a pun on “faux” but it’s never made clear).
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It’s a film that strains for arthouse credibility. The acting is fully committed. It uses impressionistic images, overlapping dialogue and recurrent sight and sound motifs to create a rich sensual tapestry. The cinematography and muted colour palette add to the dense, cloying atmosphere.
At times, there’s a sense of visual poetry, such as a shot of blood swirling down a plughole when an android takes a shower, but at another point mud clogging the plughole when a human takes a shower.
All of which are the kind of assured directorial flourishes you’d expect from Garth Davis, whose powerful cinematic debut Lion (2016) nabbed multiple Oscar and BAFTA nominations. With Foe, he’s adapting an acclaimed 2018 novel by Iain Reid, with the author himself co-writing the script.
But, sadly, all of that can’t disguise the cheesy sci-fi concepts or the artificiality of the film’s attempts at emotion. The main problem is that it desperately wants to be a sci-fi version of The Sixth Sense, and a lot of Foe’s success or failure depends on a crucial twist.
It’s a twist that you’ll definitely twig by the halfway mark, because it’s pretty clear this can’t just be a film about two people bickering.
When the twist is this obvious, watching the film becomes an intellectual exercise rather than something you’re swept along by. Especially when the void is filled with melodrama dialled up to eleven, and self-conscious filmmaking flimflammery.
The three central characters, too, are beholden to the plot mechanics. Their function within the plot pretty much determines how they act. As a result, it’s difficult to care about them, despite some charming moments, usually when they’re tipsy.
But for too much of the running time, Hen and Junior are just irritatingly angsty, while Terrance is merely arch, even when he’s having fun.
The film has little enlightening or thought-provoking to say about AI, either. As philosophical sci-fi, it feels about as cutting edge as '60s Star Trek. It’s a shame because there’s a lot to admire here, just not much to enjoy.
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