In the very near future, the Singularity means never having to say you’re sorry. Apparently, it will be even harder to find a mate, but not for any perceivable apocalyptic reasons. Fortunately, there is a company that can help. One division can test prospective couples to determine their future compatibility within a narrow margin of error. Then there is a unit that produces synthetic humans. Sure, it sounds creepy, but with the advancements in artificial intelligence, who is to say their emotional responses are not genuine? There is also a pharmaceutical division, when all else fails in Drake Doremus’s Zoe, which screened as the centerpiece of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
The titular Zoe has long been enamored with her colleague Cole, the celebrity-scientist in charge of the company’s robotics program, but when she contrives a way to test their compatibility, they score a nearly impossible zero percent. That is because he knows something about her that she does not. Zoe is the very first “synthetic” that he programmed. Unlike those that followed, she was not designed to be aware of her own artificial nature.
When the truth comes out, Cole spends a good deal of time helping process and accept who and what she truly is. Lo and behold, they fall in love, or into something that sure looks like it. Zoe even passes an informal Turin test, when Cole introduces her to his child and his former lover, Emma. She understands what Zoe is, whereas their son does not, but both are charmed by her. It is all lovey-dovey until a sudden turn of events vividly illustrates Zoe’s technical lack of humanity. This is where the romance ends and the brooding angst begins. It is also where the drugs come in.
Note the lack of diacritical markings. Zoe is indeed pronounced like “Zo,” as in Alonzo Mourning. Hearing her name pronounced so weirdly truly makes us wonder just what kind of weird dystopian world is this, anyway? Regardless, synthetics can clearly get just as depressed and self-destructive as humans, judging from the agonizingly long self-pitying portion of the film. Character-driven science fiction can be a wonderful thing, but in this case, Zoe the film is undermined by its maudlin wallowing. Ironically, had Richard Greenberg’s screenplay been more cerebral and more interested in exploring the relationship between artificial intelligence and emotion, the payoff would have hit home much more forcefully. Instead, the film is sort of like Love Story, if Ali MacGraw had a hard-drive in her head.
Still, Léa Seydoux gives a remarkable performance as Zoe, portraying some profoundly human pain and confusion. In fact, she might even be too good, because the depth and passion of her feelings is so blindingly obvious, it is hard to get what Cole’s problem is. As Cole, Ewen McGregor is stuck with some motivation issues that he never fully sweeps under the rug, but he develops some potent chemistry with Seydoux during the film’s good times. Theo James also stands out, managing to be both sensitive and destabilizing as Ash, the synthetic carrying a torch for Zoe.
Frankly, Doremus’s Equals was considerable better than critics gave it credit for, but perhaps the emotional reserve mandated by the film’s Big Brother rather helpfully forced the filmmaker to exercise restraint. In this case, Doremus dips too deeply into melodrama, undercutting his very premise. There is some good stuff here (Seydoux and elements of the world-building), but the vibe is too dreamy and gauzy. That makes Zoe so frustrating, because we don’t want to throw it all out with the bathwater, but it is hard to recommended the whole, flawed package, which is what viewers will pay to see. Proceed with caution, after Zoe premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.