The year is 2065, we're told as the dusty — in more ways than one — Foe opens. Planet Earth is dying, and governmental plans are afoot to move the entire population offworld. As part of that unlikely scheme, artificial humans called simulants are being developed.
And so one evening, Terrance (Aaron Pierre) arrives at the remote farmhouse where Junior (Paul Mescal) and Hen (Saoirse Ronan) live. He's a representative of a corporation that is working with the government on that offworld-relocation project, and he is sorry and/or delighted to inform Junior that he has been chosen to work at an orbiting facility. Junior has been conscripted, basically: He cannot refuse. But no worries! The company will leave a simulant of Junior with Hen to keep her company while he is away in space.
Now, you might think that the whole rationale for the technology of simulants would be that they could do nasty, dangerous work in orbit and elsewhere offplanet to prepare for the arrival of actual humans (see: Blade Runner.) That would still be horrific, because wouldn't replicant faux-humans who are nevertheless indistinguishable from actual humans also be beings worthy of dignity and respect and pesky things like rights? Sure, Foe broaches such ideas... but it only broaches them. It fails to genuinely explore them.
This is a movie, like so many others recently, that is ostensibly science fiction yet doesn't have much of a grasp on the genre and its potential to explore the human condition. It wants to take advantage of sci-fi's cachet, but director and co-writer Garth Davis seems to believe that just touching on ideas is enough, leaving the audience to speculate about the ideas... on the unlikely chance they're still sufficiently engaged to keep thinking about Foe after the credits roll.
Davis — who adapted the script with Iain Reid, based on the author's novel — is crafting a metaphor about the stagnation of a romantic relationship. The central couple's struggling, perhaps dying relationship echoes the struggling, dying natural environment around them. See, Hen and Junior's farm is a small, hardscrabble place in the American Midwest, home only to a handful of chickens and a few still-living trees that Hen lovingly nurtures with reclaimed shower water; it hasn't rained in years, and the landscape is beyond parched. Junior's ancestral connection to the farm is what keeps him there; it has been in his family for generations. Hen is struggling with living in this left-behind place, and fair enough. But we're never quite sure what she ever saw in Junior and his farm in the first place.
It's a cinematic conundrum, because Ronan and Mescal are two of the finest young actors working today, and their performances here are very good. But there isn't much chemistry between them, nor is there much chemistry between them and the mesmerizing Pierre as Terrance. Bizarrely, Terrance will be living with the couple for many months, so that he can observe them and learn as much as possible about their relationship so that the Junior simulant will be as realistic as possible. (If this level of involvement is required to make a single simulant, how can this possibly be done at the sort of scale that the stated intentions of the project would require?)
Foe makes too much of the "surprise" that, of course, one of these three will be replaced by a simulant at some point. And it makes far too little of the ramifications of that inevitability.
Foe makes too much of sweaty global warming; a golden incandescence suffuses Mátyás Erdély's gorgeous cinematography of rural Victoria, in Australia, which stands in for the American Midwest. But it makes far too little of the horror of a dying planet.
Foe insists that the problems of these three little people amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. And they simply don't. ♦FOE