Review: In ‘Foe,’ two top actors are game but sci-fi vagueness becomes the enemy

A man kisses the shoulder of a woman lying on her side in a bed.
Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal in the movie “Foe.”
(Amazon Studios)
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The metaphors loom large — then land with a thud — in Garth Davis’ lo-fi sci-fi experiment “Foe.” It could have been a valiant effort, but the “Lion” filmmaker fails to build the world on which his futurist philosophizing rests, leaving us only with a muddled melodrama about artificial intelligence and romantic partnership, ideas that have been more thoroughly and thoughtfully plumbed elsewhere.

The title “Foe” is also a pun, though the rest of the movie is not so offensively bad as that double entendre; it’s just so lacking in substance and momentum as to be entirely inert. Stars Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan are wholly, physically committed to their roles, and they’re captured with a clammy tactility by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, who brings a golden glow to the “Malick does Dust Bowl” aesthetic. Everyone here really wants to make something good and moving, but they’re all working so hard to make something out of nothing.

The year is 2065, the same year of that other sci-fi movie now in theaters, “The Creator,” in which the U.S. wages holy war against an AI. In the world of “Foe,” “human substitutes” have been accepted and integrated as a labor force, allegedly, according to some introductory text. We’re also told that the land is uninhabitable and water scarce. These are facts that we’re supposed to take at face value, thanks to some snippets of news segments, but Hen (Ronan) and Junior (Mescal) seem to be fine enough on their family farm, just kind of sweaty.


They lead a simple life: She works in the diner, he at the chicken-processing plant, and they spend most of their free time tangled up in the sheets whispering lyrical nonsense at each other. In the opening scene there’s a knock at the door: Terrence (Aaron Pierre) informs Junior he has to go colonize space whether he wants to or not, and Hen is not invited to join. Something’s not adding up here — they’re all just too weird. Nothing about this relationship or these characters in this place rings true, but it’s unclear if that’s intentional or not.

A man stars into the lens, hypnotically.
Aaron Pierre in the movie “Foe.”
(Amazon Studios)

Golden-eyed Terrence bears bottles of wine and a persuasive tone. He settles into a guest room to observe Junior so that he can create a human substitute to leave in his place to keep Hen company. Junior bristles at the idea and he starts to act out. At one point he runs into a burning barn. He observes beetles and throws tantrums and punches walls. Meanwhile, Terrence is spending time with Hen too, asking her about her wants and needs and her relationship with Junior.

For all the talk of space, we remain rooted to the earth, but the human interactions onscreen are completely alien. There is, of course, a twist coming, one you can see roaring down the prairie, and despite Ronan’s and Mescal’s best emotive efforts, it is a ludicrous revelation.

A man rests his head on a woman's shoulder.
Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan in the movie “Foe.”
(Amazon Studios)

Davis and Iain Reid adapted the latter’s 2018 novel for the screen, and the script uses AI as a metaphor for the ways in which we adapt ourselves to our partners, erasing the things that make us human in order to coexist. The story plays with the fantasy that someone new might better meet our needs, that it’s easy to get stuck in old patterns and take others for granted, even loved ones. But there are films, like “Ex Machina” and “I’m Your Man,” that explore these ideas with more nuance, depth and daring than “Foe” could ever dream of.


The best thing you can say about “Foe” is that it puts the sex back in sci-fi, and Mescal — whose breakout role was in the erotically charged Hulu series “Normal People” — is enthusiastically up for the challenge. He and Ronan make for a pretty picture, but there’s simply nothing going on beneath the surface.


Rating: R, for language, some sexual content and nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Playing: In limited release Oct. 6