FOE: Sci-Fi Dystopian Tale Wastes Talent On Both Sides of the Camera

The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn’t exist.

A misfire by any another name is still a misfire and Foe, Garth Davis’s adaptation of Iain Reid’s (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) well-reviewed 2018 novel, passes — or rather fails — every storytelling-related test. Repeatedly undermined by deliberately opaque storytelling, woefully under-motivated character development, and, at best, a loosely connected, dystopian backdrop, Foe falls short on every level. It also badly misuses and even wastes Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal, both among the best performers of their generation, making the why (as in “Why was Foe made in the first place?”) almost as inscrutable as the storytelling decisions behind that particular why.

Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan in FOE.

Foe opens unpromisingly with a title card laying out a dystopian future involving irreversible climate change, off-world, corporate-controlled exploration, and humanoid AI (i.e., androids), before switching focus to a young American couple, Hen (Ronan) and Junior (Mescal), somewhere in the American Midwest (Melbourne and South Australia). Married for seven years and living a tech-free, subsistence on Junior’s family farm — where, we soon learn, farming isn’t possible due to lack of water and the arid, unforgiving landscape — they’re guided by, for Hen, mind-numbing, soul-crushing routine and, for him, mind-soothing, soul-elevating routine.

Hen and Junior represent a classic couple type: Married too young, dependent on physical passion now spent, and moving in opposite directions, if not physically, then emotionally, spiritually, and metaphorically. It’s almost enough for Foe (a title that’s never adequately explained) to simply set out a series of vignettes or scenes from a fractured, fracturing marriage, but eventually the sci-fi, dystopian elements make an appearance in the form of Terrance (Aaron Pierre), a smiling, over-gregarious representative for OuterMore, a multinational company spearheading the eventual move of humanity into a fully functioning orbiting space station and from there, parts unknown.

Cagey and ambiguous to a fault, Terrance arrives with a proposition Hen and Junior can’t refuse: A two-year contract for Junior on the space station as part of a continuing test or experiment centered on long-term, outer-space survival. While both Hen and Junior resist Terrance’s offer, regardless of whatever remuneration it includes, he’s quick to remind them that the alternative, conscription, remains available. In one of the most chilling, if obvious, lines of dialogue, Terrance reminds Hen and Junior that OuterMore isn’t just a corporation. In essence and function, it’s also the government.

With no realistic escape available, Hen and Junior spend the next year waiting for Junior’s literal number to be called. Over time, the prospect of an enforced separation brings them closer, rekindling the long-dormant sparks in their relationship. When Terrance, however, shows up again after a year to inform Junior that he’s been selected for space work and has all of two weeks to prepare, Hen and Junior, knowing resistance is futile, attempt to emotionally ready themselves for their forced separation.

The rub — such as it is — arrives in Terrance’s promise that Hen won’t be left alone during Junior’s prolonged absence, but a suitable replacement, a bio-engineered duplicate created in Junior’s image, will replace him for the duration of the contract. Over the next two, last weeks, Terrance will subject Junior to a series of odd tests, some physical, mostly personal and psychological, of Junior’s psyche so his double will mirror him in all the key measurables. The impending arrival of the double, along with the increasing strain on Hen and Junior’s relationship, forms the back half of Foe’s ponderous, flaccid, ultimately bloated running time.

The underlying ethical and moral dilemma regarding sentient, self-aware duplicates and what, if anything, happens to them after they’re no longer useful, hangs imperceptibly, just out of reach — hinted at, but never fully or even partially restored. Instead, David, closely following Reid’s novel, embraces a third-act reveal that isn’t much of one, at least not for anyone who’s either read the novel or simply paid attention over Foe’s previous 80 minutes. The reveal contains a singular moment of shock, but it’s just that: a moment meant to shock the audience (assuming, of course, they’re still paying attention). And with another 20 minutes left in Foe’s overlong, unjustified running time, it’s all narrative downhill from there to the predictable final shot and the merciful arrival of the end credits.

Foe premiered at the New York Film Festival on September 30th. A general release in North America will follow on Friday, October 13th.

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