Drake Doremus is determined to become our national chronicler of love in the age of high technology. Following Equals and Newness, limp futuristic romances starring Nicholas Hoult and a handheld camera stuck in shallow focus, Doremus delivers Zoe: another sci-fi misfire that’s just as lost and bewildered as its sullen man-child protagonist.
The film follows the woes of Zoe (Léa Seydoux in her first major English language role) who’s crushing on her boss Cole (a relentlessly overwrought Ewan McGregor). Together, they work at a pioneering tech and pharma called Relationist in the division of “Synthetics,” which we soon learn, is this not-so-distant future’s term for androids. But these aren’t just any old robots — the ones Relationist creates are so utterly indistinguishable from humans that, from the start, we get a whiff of that ole sci-fi gag: Who’s a human? Who’s a robot? This person you thought was a human may be a robot! Etc.
“…a whiff of that ole sci-fi gag: Who’s a human? Who’s a robot?…”
As chief synthetic designer, part of Cole’s job is to download his own personal memories and emotions into the synthetics, teaching them how to think and feel like a human. Ergo, all of Cole’s android brainchildren (including a thoughtful, disarmingly sexy one played by Theo James) bear parts of his and his employees’ consciousness. This makes falling in love with a synthetic particularly convoluted and narcissistic — a drama that we watch play out for Cole and Zoe through the first half of the film in what looks more like an Apple commercial than anything else.
The most inventive strand of the story involves an underground brothel filled with synthetics: it isn’t illegal because they’re not “real” women. One of the robot prostitutes, in a bafflingly excellent cameo by Christina Aguilera, tells Zoe that she’s wearing thin at the seams (literally) and will have to be discarded soon. Probing the objectification of sex workers — and women in general — through female sex robots isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but it’s a welcome departure from pouty, puppy-dog-eyed Cole.
But we don’t stick with any of that for long — soon, the story swivels from Love in the Time of Robots to Love in the Time of Pharmaceuticals. This new conceptual segment, which unfolds like a never-ending, synth-infused music video montage, spotlights a new drug on the market: a pill that simulates, for just a few hours, the feeling of falling in love. You and your partner — or, as Cole and Zoe begin to take it in random meet-ups, you and a stranger — can swallow the pill simultaneously and enjoy a spike (just a few hours long) of faux attraction and affection.
“…we’re killing any hope for organic, bona fide romance.”
The subtext, of course, is that our real-life romantic age isn’t that far off from this hyped up condition. That in our drunken one night stands and Tinder conquests and supposed millennial lovelessness, we’re killing any hope for organic, bona fide romance. That we’re just a few steps away from manufacturing new love as a mass-produced commodity. (I might venture to argue that this fictional drug already exists in the form of MDMA, but that’s beside the point.)
“I don’t remember how to feel without the drug,” Cole whimpers at one point to top off yet another melancholy montage of drug-induced intimacy. It’s the perfect cloying remark for a floaty, maddeningly sulky film that wants, more than anything, for its audience to feel it. By the end, all we’re feeling is wearied out.
Zoe (2018): Directed by Drake Doremus. Written by Richard Greenberg. Starring Léa Seydoux, Ewan McGregor, and Rashida Jones. Zoe screened at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival