Foe’s potential is immense. The new sci-fi drama from director Garth Davis, who garnered acclaim after 2016’s Lion, stars beloved under-30 actors in Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan. It’s adapted from a book by Iain Reid (I’m Thinking of Ending Things). The two Irish stars play an American couple, Henrietta and Junior, living in the Midwest later this century, existing in a world ravaged by a climate crisis that’s caused an unending drought. An unknown man named Terrance (Aaron Pierre) visits their farm, claiming that Junior must go to space to help save the human species while Henrietta stays behind with a clone of her husband. Foe has a solid director, a great cast, and a good-enough premise. The movie, considered against its potential, borders on laughable and cements itself as inane.
The movie thrives when the mystery hasn’t been unraveled and Reid’s script remains amorphous. Foe finds interest and feigns meaning when Henrietta and Junior don’t fully understand the implications of his departure and Terrance is just a smiling face representing concepts rather than actions. It never reaches for any grasp on themes, though, outside generalized climate panic and the sentience of artificial intelligence, well-worn territory where Davis cannot find anything new to say.
Once Terrance gives the couple more information––and certainly once Davis reveals the final twists––the drama turns into an unintentional comedy. Moments of supposed emotional payoff burst at the seams, veering into forced exaggeration unnecessarily heightened by the very real performances of Mescal and Ronan. The “big reveal” turns out to be obvious and unfortunate, undermining any initial connection the audience had to these characters. Still, that connection to Henrietta and Junior feels faint from the start, nothing more than a whisper of starting to care about these two people. It’s more than just unbelievable; it’s unreasonable and absurd.
Mescal and Ronan’s collective chemistry, their ability, get left in the ashes of this story. Their efforts are in vain, though they consistently make for a compelling pair. Both have such assured presences. They continue to impress even in pictures that lack the interest they’re putting forth. Pierre even ends up stealing a few scenes, using a constant winking energy. He’s happy to watch this marriage implode, inserting himself into the lives of these already fragile people. He provides a mirror to the other actors, a backboard for Mescal to rage against, for Ronan to lean on. Pierre remains a relative unknown in Hollywood, though this role should lead to bigger, better movies, his striking features injecting Foe with the minimum of a differing spirit, breaking up the near monotony of vast landscapes and blank faces.
Shot by Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul, The Nest), cinematography is quite effective through the first half, capturing these vast landscapes. The calmness of the plains produces an apt juxtaposition to the manic marriage and the questions being posed by an intruder speaking for the fate of the world. But all of it remains heavy-handed, and the melodrama reaches into space, unwilling to come back down to reality.
Foe represents a swing and a miss by Davis. The consciousness of AI, the mistrust and breaking apart in a relationship, the effects of climate change on our population––all of these plots lack clarity and understanding. It becomes a mess of concepts, issues, and messages, an amalgamation of errors in tone and story. As the film reaches its supposed peak, it actually becomes Foe’s undoing, the final time audiences can suspend their disbelief. There’s nothing to do but laugh.
Foe world premiered at the 61st New York Film Festival and opens in theaters on October 6.