This review contains spoilers for a first-act twist. You’ve been warned.
For the past few years, Drake Doremus has been particularly preoccupied with the effect of the future (and all of its advents) on emotion, creating lovelorn visions of anxiety and intrigue in Newness and Equals. With Zoe, he returns to these themes and a sci-fi setting, envisioning a slow and mannered future in a which love can boiled down to a number in a lab or recreated in a pair of blue pills. The film centers on Cole Ainsley (Ewan McGregor), the heartbroken head of a cutting edge startup called Relationist, a company made famous by its patented ability to assess, through a series of questions, the long-term viability of any given couple’s relationship.
The titular Zoe (Lea Seydoux) splits her time between administering those questions to eager couples at the Relationist offices and pining after Cole. But Cole, despite being the face of a Silicon Valley darling, is still reeling from his recent separation from his wife – and isn’t satisfied with simply grading already happy couples. Instead, Cole fixes his energy on a new project, one that’s meant provide synthetic partners for those who’ve become unlucky in love, a humanoid significant other that’s designed never to leave, providing lasting companionship to those with enough cash to purchase it.
In one of the film’s earliest sequences, we see Cole carefully weaving closed the skull of a synthetic named Ash (Theo James), who takes his consciousness as an opportunity to devour novels by Kafka and learn the waltz, his lifelike appearance only undermined by his awareness of his own artificiality. Ash’s self-aware A.I. is interesting to watch, and it’s a dynamic that’s ripe for exploration in ways that seem almost stripped directly from current headlines. But despite all of the groundwork laid by Zoe’s opening sequences, what unfolds is a reductive depiction of gendered power dynamics that’s easily duller than any of the films and series it shares thematic threads with.
Following a first-act revelation that reveals Zoe is in fact Cole’s first attempt at a synthetic partner, Zoe devolves quickly into a plodding and dopey romance that not only fails to answer any of the questions that might make breathe life into the feature, but actively avoids answering them in favor of broad, overdone sequences that ring hollow.
Zoe, left reeling by the revelation that all of her memories and sense of self has been crafted by the man she loves, finds solace in Cole’s arms. The problem? Cole can’t bring himself to love her as he might a human, too aware of her artificiality having made her just a few months prior. From there, the script conflates a convoluted narrative with a complex one, spiraling off into a multitude of dead-end directions from there, the worst of which involve an underground brothel for synthetics (even a Christina Aguilera cameo can’t save the cliched goings-on) and a drug that synthesizes the feeling of first love for any two people who take it together. But even with the script’s constant distractions, the film still feels like a slog, and the escalating stakes create a third act in which every histrionic scene threatens to outdo the last.
Perhaps worst still is the film’s complete lack of concern with the power dynamics at play. Cole, who brought Zoe to consciousness then proceeded to tear down her world by revealing her manufacturing, never once concerns himself with the ethical ickiness of becoming infatuated his own creation, all the while chiding her for being fake. In more than one scene, Zoe reads like an embarrassing collection of fantasies: gorgeous, faraway, virginal, and utterly obsessed with the man who made her who she is. There’s an offensively obtuse backstory involving Zoe’s shame about previously being “really heavy… the kind of heavy that makes you invisible” and an embarrassing lack of emotional shading for a character we’re constantly reassured is shockingly complex.
Still, the performances here are good, McGregor is at his rawest in the film’s final act, and Seydoux pulls off a nearly incoherent emotional arc with aplomb. Doremus’ strength of pulling strong performances out of surprise guest stars remains here, as Rashida Jones, Mathew Gray Gubler and yes, the aforementioned Aguilera, give striking performances despite their limited screen time. Cinematographer John Guleserian, Doremus’ collaborator on both Like Crazy and Equals, returns to make the film look absolutely gorgeous, despite itself.
While not always perfect, Doremus’ filmography is an admirable one. He’s done well to define himself as a filmmaker interested in asking new and persistent questions about our existence, and, as an extension, love. As a result, Zoe doesn’t just feel like a failed experiment, but also a missed opportunity. The questions at the heart of the film, about the possibility of simulating love (and loving a simulation) are fascinating, but at the end of the film remain conspicuously unanswered. For all its big ideas about the future, Zoe’s vision of love is shamefully outdated.
Zoe is expected to be released later this year by Amazon Studios.