Given the nature of its subject matter, a dystopian near-future thriller that tackles artificial intelligence and identity in a world facing environmental catastrophe, FOE should be a prescient examination of the imminent challenges we face both environmentally and technologically. Instead, Garth Davis has somehow generated a film with the feeling of an AI construct, resembling a story, but on closer examination its flaws and unreality become all too apparent.
Davis has worked with Iain Reid to adapt the author’s novel of the same name, and it’s a surprise in retrospect that this is even an adaptation, the connective tissue which would allow the story to cohere feeling stretched to breaking point. The setting is a remote farm in mid-west America around four decades into our future, a desolate landscape where visitors would seem unlikely, but the arrival of Terrance (Aaron Pierce) carries more threat than most.
The farm is managed by Junior (Paul Mescal) and Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan). They lead mundane, mediocre lives; he works at an industrial chicken factory while she works at a nearby diner. Their relationship feels aimless and drifting even before Terrance’s arrival. He explains that the impending environmental apocalypse requires citizens, selected at random, to help build a space-based exit strategy, and Junior’s name has come up. But it’s not all bad news: this future world has created the ability to manufacture synthetic duplicates of real people, and – whether they like it or not, and Junior, in particular, is very much in the latter camp – a facsimile of her husband will keep Henrietta company once Junior goes off to space camp.
To enable a smooth transition, Terrance announces he will be moving in to observe the pair in their daily lives and their distractions, while Junior finds solace in the bottom of a bottle. Quite why Junior would be considered for such an important programme, given his societal status and proclivity for alcohol, are among the many questions that FOE would prefer we didn’t consider, as they don’t particularly stand up to scrutiny.
It doesn’t help either writer or director that the discussed themes have been explored with more drama and interest in everything from Star Trek to Black Mirror. There’s an inefficiency to the world-building, with too much set up by title cards and the sparing visual effects shots supplementing story beats we already know, when they could have been used to create the sense of this impending dystopia in a far more absorbing fashion. Unfortunately, what we are spoon-fed by the usual text-on-plain-background also fails to blend in convincingly, feeling too disparate from the dusty landscapes with which we’re presented for the majority of the film’s running time.
This sense of dislocation in drama and milieu also extends to the performances. It feels impossible that either Mescal or Ronan could perform badly, and in isolation they are acting their hearts out with a capital A. Still, because the story gives them such short shrift, the overall effect is intense drama school auditions stitched together with a plot invented in hindsight. There’s no real resonance to what unfolds: no sense of jeopardy or empathy comes even close to being evoked.
Later plot developments unfold with a smugness that suggests the creative team behind FOE believes them to be earth-shattering when they are obvious and inevitable instead. The resolutions also call into question the themes that Davis and Reed have been exploring; unfortunately, their chosen topics feel under-explored, and it is galling that so many opportunities for something richer and more contemporary seem to have been passed up. Reed’s novel is only five years old, so shouldn’t have needed any translation, but more work to strengthen almost every aspect of the storytelling and character work would have been useful.
What we’re left with is a series of moments from the two lead performers that might take a place on their acting showreels in years to come, but those snatches of isolated drama will feel no more cut adrift from their context there than they do here. FOE feels lethargic rather than slow-burn, a throwback rather than progressive and misjudged in too many key aspects, and its disservice to Ronan and Mescal is unfortunate. It’s left to the audience to determine who the foe of the title might be, but on the evidence presented, the strongest candidate would seem to be the script.