On love, and the end of love, through the adolescent filter of Drake Doremus
Zoe Amazon Studios
Director: Drake Doremus
Screenplay: Rich Greenberg
Starring: Lea Seydoux, Ewan McGregor, Theo James, Rashida Jones, Miranda Otto and Christina Aguilera
Rated R / 1 hour, 44 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / Amazon Prime
(out of four)
There are romantics, and there are tragic dramatists, and then there are dopey sentimentalists who get off on devising ways to obstruct their characters' relationships in fraudulent pursuits of melancholic depth.
Drake Doremus is one such dopey sentimentalist, and he's made that bogus form of wistful star-crossed romance his dubious signature. His latest offering, Zoe, is also his worst, snagging that honor from the previous title-holder, 2015's Equals. Both, incidentally, are science-fiction, where his milquetoast dramatic notions dovetail most acutely with his limited visual vocabulary.
I cannot emphasize enough how much Doremus believes he is making Spike Jonze's Her. In his version, the artificial intelligence has a physical body, and in fact doesn't know, at first, that she isn't human. First, she falls in love with her boss, Cole (Ewan McGregor), who then informs her that she is an A.I. model of his own creation. He proceeds to falls in love with her, then decides he can't love her, and from there the film splinters into various threads examining authentic and synthetic forms of love, sex and emotional connection. All of this is bracketed by Zoe's burgeoning self-discovery and evolution on one end, and Cole's enduring, regretful lovesickness on the other.
But the true artificiality in Zoe is in the conflict itself. The fact that Zoe and Cole cannot be - or choose not to be - together is Doremus' sweet spot. He writes characters into relationships for the sole purpose of splitting them up. Not that there's anything wrong with exploring tragedy or loss or failure. Except I don't think he's actually exploring any of that, but simply using it as a gauzy veneer designed to elicit recognizable but shallow emotions. He may well find something true and poignant in failed relationships, and the anxieties, mistakes, circumstances and social pressures that doom those relationships. But he's incapable of communicating any of that - he communicates only an immature sense of longing and puppy love and an equally immature sense of heartbreak when he eagerly tears that love apart. There's an adolescent mopiness to his romances that he consistently mistakes for profundity. He attempts so little interrogation and such minimal insight; he just floats along the surface of his characters' emotional currents and never braves the deeper frailties, either personally, morally or (especially in the case of his sci-fi efforts) socioculturally. He turns emotional self-destruction into delicate yearning.
Doremus is like the dude in ninth-grade creative writing who has a bad breakup and writes a shitty poem about it and insists on reading it in front of the class in hopes of proving what a sensitive guy he is. He makes sad movies but he never earns that sadness. He's not penetrating or ruthless enough for these relationships to come across as authentic, especially in their almost-inevitable collapse. There's no discernible pessimism or fatalism to his romanticized sense of heartbreak; dramatically speaking it comes across more as emotional opportunism. As if he thinks it's easier to make an audience care about a relationship because it didn't last than it would be for one that did. How many movies can you make about characters monotonously pining for the one that got away without ever digging deep into the relationships themselves?
His best film remains his breakout Sundance hit Like Crazy - starring Felicity Jones and the late Anton Yelchin - but even that one is beginning to feel more suspicious in retrospect. Like Crazy worked - at least I think it did? - in part because it was consciously buried in a certain youthful, collegiate haze. It didn't need to be any wiser than its years. It lived in a specific moment - that moment when you're experiencing the enormity of serious, life-changing love for the first time and you have no idea how to handle it, or the prospect of losing it. The film's emotional wavelength - and that of its early-20s leads - was inseparable from its youth.
But when 47-year-old Ewan McGregor is feeling and behaving the same way about a twentysomething robot that he built for himself, it suddenly looks extremely pathetic. Especially when placed alongside the director's many other fractured romantic couplings, from Breathe In (married fortysomething falls for foreign-exchange student) to Equals (Emotions are a disease and also illegal!). What emerges is an artist with a severe case of arrested development - or one who's deceptively (but consciously) cynical.
Doremus certainly has an aesthetic - the soft, hazy lighting and subdued bursts of color; the handheld camerawork and tender, unobtrusive music - but beyond that basic sensibility, he's not very adept at getting ideas across with his images. Cole has a Eureka moment at one point - it's what causes him to break things off with Zoe - and while it's obvious what specific detail gets to him, the film never actually forges the emotional and psychological connection that's being implied. If this were a key detail of plotting or setting, it would be fine. But this is a game-changing emotional moment and Doremus has no idea what to do with it except say "Look." He might as well be using flash cards instead of moving images.
And that's nothing compared to an earlier moment explicitly designed to be the film's big, bold emotional emblem, but which instead nakedly exposes Doremus' visual limitations: In the culmination of an already flimsy courtship sequence between our two leads - which inexplicably occurs immediately after Zoe is informed* that she isn't even human - the two arrive at a cavernous interactive installation in which your words are instantaneously translated into images on a massive panoramic screen that encompasses you. They playfully talk and whisper and shout as the screen bursts into random multi-colored sparks popping off in all directions. The two get quiet and move closer toward one another, and finally embrace for a silhouetted kiss as the screen explodes behind them in a display of confetti-like digital fireworks. This moment is meant to be this ecstatic, explosive reflection of their romantic excitement - so much so that it became the central image of the film's own marketing (see poster above) - but it's basically just a Windows 95 screensaver. It's fine, and a nice enough idea, but presenting this as the visual immortalization of a sweeping romantic moment is a clear signal of the film's - and its director's - limited imagination.
* Narrative focus and screen time are split fairly equally between Zoe and Cole, but it's telling that the single biggest moment in either of their lives - I mean, just imagine being informed that your entire life was pretend and you were a synthetic creation with a manufactured consciousness - is glossed over, with the film almost instantly moving past it so it can hurry and get its characters into a falling-in-love montage.
Cole, by the way, is a recently divorced tech industry star who works as the head synthetics designer for a company called Relationist, which specializes in companionship and compatibility of all kinds. Think of it as eHarmony with a robotics department. Zoe is his lab supervisor and unwitting guinea pig. He only breaks the news to her once she falls for him, runs a compatibility match and gets a zero-percent rating, and wonders why.
Beyond the romance, Zoe involves other types of synthetic companionship - including Cole's newest creation, a handsome male assistant played by Theo James, who's much more pragmatic about his own place in the world (the fact that he was never programmed to believe he was human surely helps) - like synthetic brothels and even pharmaceuticals that, instead of standard narcotic euphoria, recreate the feeling of new love, which lasts an hour or two and then wears off. The drug becomes addictive and turns people into emotionally detached love junkies.
Framing the filmmaker's ideas about love and sex - about communication and connection in the modern world - inside sci-fi conventions is a reasonable enough ambition, but it's not long before we come to the realization that the genre endeavor is just as disingenuous as the fate of the central relationship itself. The various metaphorical ways Zoe is trying to use artificial intelligence and synthetic humans don't go very far. Doremus is trying to tell us he's exploring something new, when in fact he's just repackaged the same movie he always makes. Zoe is a juvenile film that manages to make Doremus' other films seem even more juvenile by association.