Review | ‘Foe’: For this brainy but bloodless sci-fi film, faux is more like it

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(1.5 stars)

The title of the film “Foe,” a cerebral-to-the-point-of-bloodless marital drama set in a dystopian future, is apt in more ways than one. The most obvious meaning could refer to one or both of its central characters: Saoirse Ronan’s Henrietta, or Hen, a waitress at a rural diner, and her husband, Junior (Paul Mescal), a worker in a giant chicken-processing plant.

What either of them does for a living is irrelevant in a drama of a strained relationship that takes place almost entirely in and around their home, a 200-year-old dilapidated farmhouse in the middle of a desolate landscape surrounded by leafless trees. On-screen titles tell us the year is 2065, during a time of environmental degradation, urban overcrowding and flight by most other people from the barren countryside. (Who exactly is eating in Hen’s apparently busy restaurant, of which we catch only a glimpse, is one of the film’s mysteries. Perhaps it’s a company canteen for the chicken plant employees.)

But “Foe” might also refer to Terrance (Aaron Pierre), the enigmatic, slightly malevolent official who shows up one day at their door with an offer Hen and Junior can’t refuse. Junior has been conscripted to spend two years on a space station (known as the “installation”) that is being built by something called OuterMore to accommodate the human race when we eventually abandon the planet we have destroyed. In Junior’s absence, a biomechanical doppelgänger will take his place.

Junior 2.0, whom Hen’s husband is understandably none too pleased about, is also the film’s potential titular antagonist. Though Terrance, who eventually moves in with Hen and Junior in preparation for the switcheroo, is also a disruptive force. He’s part observer, part marriage counselor and part busybody.

One other interpretation of this A.I.-themed psychological/philosophical thriller about the nature of identity and what it means to be human involves, of course, a play on the word “faux,” meaning false. But the prospect of an android husband is, unfortunately, only the most literal sense of artificiality. Dispiritingly, in a movie that stars two of today’s most talented young actors, “Foe” is defined not by human drama but by a pervasive sense that neither Ronan nor Mescal is actually playing a real human being. Each of their characters comes across as an automaton in service of the film’s larger themes of — ironically — selfhood and individuality.

The stilted, stagy and self-conscious dialogue by writer-director Garth Davis (“Lion”) and Iain Reid — adapted from Reid’s 2018 novel and delivered amid impressionistic scenes that swing wildly between episodes of mundane domesticity, moments of sudden emotional intensity and impressionistic vistas of bleak natural beauty — never quite sounds like actual conversation. The whole thing plays like a post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick directed by Terrence Malick: all talk bordering on pretentious poetry and close-ups of body parts.

That said, there are brief shots of the orbiting space station here and there, and a scene or two in which we see some UFO-like vessels hovering over Hen and Junior’s farm, as well as a bit of vaguely futuristic tech. But more than anything, “Foe” feels less like a story that engages with the idea of artificial intelligence in any real way than a clinical essay, one in which the characters are stand-ins for some theoretical point that Davis is trying to get across. Paradoxically, “Foe’s” message ultimately comes across as both unsubtle and annoyingly oblique.

There’s even a scene in which Hen, Junior and Terrance are shown drunkenly chanting along to a recording of poet-singer Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 “I’m New Here,” a half-spoken, half-sung ditty whose lyrics include: “I did not become someone different that I did not want to be, but I’m new here. Will you show me around?”

Thanks. Like subtitles, the words come in handy in case you can’t figure out what “Foe” is about.

Obtuseness may also be a problem. “Foe” parcels out information sparingly, and at times viewers may feel temporarily adrift. (By the time Terrence says to Junior, toward the film’s climax, “You must be confused,” I had been scratching my head for some time.) Yes, there is a massive twist coming — not just one but two — that unravels and then reknits everything we’ve just seen in this corkscrew of a movie. But the ending of “Foe” is not the problem. It’s the beginning and the middle that feel phony: at once as calculated and as uncanny as ChatGPT.

R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language, some sexual situations and nudity. 108 minutes.

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