Not even Christina Aguilera’s cameo as an obsolete robot prostitute can save Drake Doremus’ inanimate story of designer dating, a high-concept, low-reward romance that hopefully completes the “Like Crazy” filmmaker’s trilogy of lifeless movies about the near future of love.
It began with “Equals,” a moribund Kurt Vonnegut riff about a dystopian society where emotions have been outlawed. It continued with “Newness,” a banal vivisection of relationships in the age of Tinder. Now this informal triptych bottoms out with “Zoe,” a humorless (and characteristically half-baked) glimpse at a tomorrow in which singles are matched together by algorithms, and the tech community has started creating androids — Synthetics — to satisfy people who would rather build their ideal partner from scratch.
It’s Doremus’ third consecutive film to explore the folly of trying to (m)end the heartache that makes us human, his third consecutive film to waste an impressive cast on some very inert material, and his third consecutive film to feel like a bland episode of “Black Mirror.” The best thing that can be said about “Zoe” is that it occasionally spices things up by feeling like a bland episode of “Westworld,” as well. In a Drake Doremus movie, that’s what passes for diversity.
Toothless but still numb from the novocaine, “Zoe” is set in the office of a Montreal tech start-up that’s supposedly changing the world, despite the fact that the headquarters looks like a renovated Starbucks and it only seems to have three employees. One of those employees is our Zoe (Léa Seydoux), a lonely young woman who longs for a man who will never leave her. Specifically, she longs for Cole (a sleep-walking Ewan McGregor), the sad-eyed founder of the company; he and his ex-wife lost faith in their marriage after receiving a low score on his patented compatibility test. Once the idea of their love had died, their love itself wasn’t far behind. Maybe — Doremus clumsily suggests — love is nothing more than a shared belief in its existence.
People are so finicky. But androids aim to please. Take Ash, for example. Played by a standard-issue Theo James, this humanoid hunk likes to hang around the office and crush on Zoe. He’s an impressive piece of work, far more evolved than the consumer-grade Synthetics we spy doing physical labor or working as bartenders (these primitive models are embodied by actors doing the robot and spray-painted shiny like the “silver men” you’d find in a tourist spot). He’s even further along than the Synthetics that are used for illicit sex work, the most popular of which looks an awful lot like Christina Aguilera. The robot prostitute equivalent of a cracked a iPhone, she’s built up so much wear and tear that her “skin” is chipping off. Eventually, she’s forced to wander the streets in desperate search for another charge. The character is onscreen for a grand total of roughly 45 seconds, and yet there’s more detail and genuine pathos to her than in the rest of Richard Greenberg’s script combined.
But “Zoe” would rather focus on Ash. One of the film’s worst and most under-thought scenes finds him hosting an impromptu Steve Jobs-like address where he reveals his true nature to an awed crowd at a tech conference. It’s a game-changing innovation, unveiled with all the hoopla of a schoolyard fight. Wouldn’t Cole be an Elon Musk type, and not the mopey guy in the corner of the local bar? Wouldn’t this breakthrough development generate any kind of attention?
Doremus’ naturalistic, day-after-tomorrow approach might have been well-suited to such philosophical material, but it’s absolutely disastrous for a movie that boasts such an unformed vision of the future (the gauzy cinematography doesn’t help, the soft focus of John Guleserian’s searching camera only reinforcing the generic feel of every setting, character, and scene). It’s one thing to focus on the emotional dimensions of this story; it’s another to just blitz past everything else in the hopes that nobody notices the abject lack of imagination on display. The film’s world is so poorly conceived that it almost starts to resemble our own.
And it’s not as though there are any strong characters to redeem it. Spoiler alert for a movie that’s rotten from the start: As remarkable as Ash may be, he’s got nothing on Zoe herself. Revealed at the end of the first act to be the most advanced Synthetic ever designed — a twist that’s more surprising to her than it is to us — Zoe turns out to be a sentient prototype, a dream girl who Cole designed to desire him. And so Greenberg’s script pivots towards the wistful territory of films like “Her,” as Cole and his bespoke lover embark on a whirlwind affair as they try to find a happy medium for their hybrid love. It’s all skinny-dipping and make believe until an inadvertently hilarious accident reminds Cole that he’s head over heels for a glorified Fleshlight.
“Zoe” is barely engaging when it has a discernible plot, but it becomes interminable once Cole and Zoe are sent deep into their feelings and the film drifts towards abstraction. Scenes erode into shapeless moments of longing, Doremus relies far too much on Dan Romer’s (atypically) uninspired pop drone in much the same way that many of his previous movies leaned on Dustin O’Halloran’s gorgeous piano ballads when their stories weren’t strong enough to stand on their own. The script flails for new ideas as it begins to drown, some compelling (Zoe’s final form is a trip) and others not (Doremus and Greenberg are unable to mine even a mote of drama from a drug that simulates falling in love for the first time).
Doremus appears to have a sincere concern for the intricacies of desire, and for the bittersweet nostalgia of trying to rekindle the fire that forges two people together. His films recognize that humans are a flawed design, and insist that our heartache is more of a feature than a bug. But they also hint at the quixotic nature of being alive, hinging on a belief that many of us are defined by the things we’ve lost, and are ultimately unable to restore. But if we ever truly sympathize with Doremus’ nebulous characters, it’s only because they help us appreciate how painful it can be to spend so much time trying to divine meaning from utter emptiness.
“Zoe” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Amazon will release it later this year.