Watching Garth Davis’ Foe brings with it a sense of experiencing a story that never gets out of the first act. As a point of comparison, that first act is very similar to the one we see in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. It’s a future of depleted resources, and a farmer played by indie movie it boy Paul Mescal is approached with a mission that he needs to go to outer space. He’ll be leaving behind a woman – a daughter in Interstellar, a wife (Saoirse Ronan) in Foe – who frets about the expected duration of his trip.
Except instead of getting to the mission, which happens by about the 20-minute mark of Interstellar, we kind of sit there during this prolonged state of farewell. The narrative eventually provides an explanation for this structure, but at the time you’re watching it, it feels like a mistake – a pacing error that significantly detracts from the viewing experience. Maybe a second viewing would validate what Davis is trying to accomplish, but the reveal of his master plan must inspire in the viewer that desire to revisit the material. Foe falls short of that standard.
It’s a desiccated earth we find in 2065. Most people live in cities because the former farmland no longer sustains much agriculture. Even though Junior and Henrietta live in what’s generically referred to as the U.S. midwest, his actual work is not on their farm, such as it is. He goes to a tall cylindrical tower where chickens are processed and prepared for sale in an even more draconian manner than the earth of 2023.
One night they get a visitor. He’s Terrance (Aaron Pierre), and he projects a bemused entitlement and freedom from repercussion regarding the message he brings to them: that due to his specific physical attributes, Junior has been selected via lottery to join the initial team populating a space station orbiting earth, that may soon be the home to many more earthlings. He won’t be leaving for a year, but at that point he will be gone for several years. Even though Terrance appears to be part of a private enterprise, he has the full weight of the government behind him, and he makes it clear that Junior’s participation is not optional.
The next bombshell is that as a companion for Henrietta while he’s gone, an AI guardian will come live with her on the farm. AI is a regular part of life in 2065, and it would be dangerous for Henrietta to live all by herself while Junior is gone. Henrietta is pretty emotional about all this, but not just because her husband is leaving. Things don’t seem to have been going well between them for some time.
Foe does take on some of the issues you would expect for this ever-growing pool of movies that consider the impending role of artificial intelligence in our lives. Far more often, it lingers in these laconic moments on the farm, as Junior and Henrietta may be rediscovering some of their former passion with his departure looming. These are punctuated by the movie’s most intriguing scenes, Terrance’s semi-regular visits to provide some new bit of information about their situation, which he sells with the sinister grin of a man who is trying to cooperate and make this as painless as possible, but does not have to.
Because we have been told that the plot is supposed to turn on Junior’s departure, its failure to arrive with any narrative immediacy is a problem. Davis is stuck in a difficult spot here. Given what he’s ultimately planning to do, this structure does have a reason. And it is, indeed, a kind of death of the ambition of any filmmaker to design a film according to the rhythms we expect as viewers. At the same time, much of this film suffers from a “get on with it already” quality. First and foremost when watching a film, we need to be in it, to be invested in the direction the narrative is going. We can’t get there retroactively.
The Australian filmmaker came out of the gate, at least as far as features go, with immediate success, as his narrative debut was nominated for best picture. Since Lion in 2016, he has been trying and failing to deliver the same sort of prestige, first with Mary Magdalene in 2018, and now with Foe. Both films might be considered worthwhile failures. He’s got talented actors eager to work with him, as Mescal and Ronan may be the most in-demand actors their age, and his previous film was on the shoulders of no less than Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara. But material that isn’t up to snuff tends to neutralise the contributions of even the finest actors, and that’s what happened both there and here.
Foe is not so much a miscalculation as a failure to execute what might have been a correct calculation. We thirst for science fiction that explores our humanity, and there’s no doubt this is Foe’s own special mission. It has the materials and the technical qualifications to do just that. There is, however, a sort of intangible mystery to what brings it all together into something that leaves you both enriched philosophically and satisfied cinematically. Foe is its own worst enemy on that score.
Foe is currently playing in cinemas.