When they write the histories of our currently developing boom in smart, internet-age sci-fi movies that are concerned as much with love as with guessing how our tech will change us (note to the historians: It was well ahead of the pack, but don’t forget to include 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Drake Doremus‘ Zoe may be cited as a kind of coming-of-age moment: the point at which self-respecting art house films in the genre dipped their toes into the sort of emotional button-pushing employed by their old-fashioned multiplex peers. A human/robot love story that is less deeply imaginative than Spike Jonze’s Her and less heartbreaking than Doremus‘ own Like Crazy, the picture is nevertheless a beautifully acted, affecting drama that teases some questions society may need to answer sooner than we expect.
Ewan McGregor plays Cole, a roboticist and AI pioneer working for a firm with a three-pronged approach to the world’s romantic needs: Cole’s robotics branch; a pharmaceutical one; and a compatibility-testing AI that, after doing some psychological quizzing, can predict with near-perfect accuracy the odds a couple will stay together the rest of their lives.
A moving if imperfect post-human love story.
That last claim may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Cole took the test with his partner Emma (Rashida Jones), their compatibility score was very low; they never got over that shock, so they split up, now sharing custody of their son and getting along as close friends. She has moved on, romantically; he has thrown himself into the company’s attempt to, well, build “synthetic people who aren’t going to leave you.” The only person on his team with anything like his devotion to the work is Lea Seydoux’s Zoe (pronounced “Zoh,” not “Zoh-ee“).
Synthetics are already everywhere, but they’re easily distinguishable from flesh and blood. Some look pretty close to human (especially prostitutes, like Christina Aguilera’s robo-sexworker Jewels), but most move stiffly and none have a believably lifelike affect. That is, until Ash (Theo James), Cole’s latest creation. Stunningly handsome, Brit-accented and capable of reading humans’ emotions better than humans themselves, he’s ready to put us mortal males out of business. But he’s a proof-of-concept for Cole, just a PR tool to show what the company will soon achieve. Unfortunately for Ash, his creator made him both capable of emotion and aware he isn’t “real.” (If there’s an afterlife, surely an especially nasty corner of it will be reserved for whatever researcher finally invents machines that can feel pain.)
Given how key they are to the plot, it seems highly unlikely that the film’s biggest surprises will stay unspoiled for long, but let’s try to walk around them here. Richard Greenberg’s script is soon wondering whether machines made to mimic the actions of love can actually feel it, and whether the humans they desire might truly fall for them. The latter question seems destined to get a much easier “yes” here than it did in Her, where our lonely hero had only a voice (even if it was Scarlett Johansson’s voice) to bond with: Once a believable AI brain and voice is embodied in something that looks and moves exactly like a perfect human specimen, how many humans are going to keep pairing up with their flawed fellow mortals?
The script doesn’t entirely do justice to the complications behind that glib question. If AIs become as truly human-like as Ash is, they will surely be just as unreliable in love — subject to falling in and out of it, performing badly even when they’re committed, bored and boring on occasion. These possibilities are barely hinted at here, though the film does develop some entirely credible heartache for its non-organic protagonists.
And just as this storyline seems to be coming to a natural end, with some very fine actors working through the various dynamics between their characters, we get Benysol — a new drug people take in pairs, which syncs up their pheromones to replicate the intensity of first love for a few hours. Greenberg and Doremus don’t predict a collapse of all workplaces, with people just staying home and popping pills all day, but instead make this instant-but-fleeting gratification a kind of icky mashup between opiates and Tinder.
Suffice to say that Benysol doesn’t cure the world’s loneliness problems, and overall, may make things worse. Just like real internet dating. The film’s exploration of this, coming after the main story has all but wrapped up, plays structurally (if not tonally) a bit like a rom-com’s obligatory relationship crisis: Send our lovers off to their previous lives, and see if they don’t decide they need each other after all. Things are more complicated here, of course. But even at its most sentimental, Zoe generally succeeds in the task this nascent genre has before it: giving receptive viewers some new ways to think about the world we’re making before it arrives fully and drives us all out of our minds.
Production company: Scott Free
Cast: Lea Seydoux, Ewan McGregor, Theo James, Rashida Jones, Christina Aguilera, Miranda Otto
Director: Drake Doremus
Screenwriter: Richard Greenberg
Producers: Kevin Walsh, Michael Pruss, Drake Doremus, Robert George
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Stuart Ford, Greg Shapiro, Kate Buckley, John Zois, Lawrence Bender, Michelle Ton Zhou, Li Li, Michael Flynn
Director of photography: John Guleserian
Production designer: Katie Byron
Costume designer: Alana Morshead
Editor: Douglas Crise
Composer: Dan Romer
Casting directors: Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Gala)
Rated R, 103 minutes