Throughout his career, filmmaker Drake Doremus has been examining the human experience. In particular, he seems fascinated by emotion, with love at the top. “Zoe” is his latest treatise on it, and it’s one of his best. Subtly moving, the film never opts to go over the top, always staying in service of not just its high concept, but also its core beliefs. Science fiction romances are always allegories, and this one is no different. What helps to set “Zoe” apart is that Doremus aims equally for your head and your heart. Doing so makes this one of the best movies to play at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
“Zoe” treads in territory that things like “Ex Machina” and “Her,” though some of the concepts are deeply original. The movie ultimately ends up in a fairly expected place, but the uniqueness of other factors works to its benefit. Doremus doesn’t get bogged down in the science of it all, which lends a slight fantasy element to the otherwise realistic looking setting. Some may quibble with his decisions here and there, but the bold vision is one worth celebrating.
Set in the near future, we’re introduced to Cole (Ewan McGregor), a revolutionary roboticist at a company changing the way relationships are looked at. The firm has an AI program that tests couples for compatibility with almost unbeatable accuracy. If their algorithm suggests you’re meant to be, you’ll be together the rest of your lives. There’s also a pharmaceutical branch, which is working on a pill that simulates first love between the two people who take it. Then, there’s Cole’s robotics side, where he works with Zoe (Lea Seydoux). Cole has spent his life making synthetic lifeforms that can be the perfect companion and never leave you, in part due to the failure of his own relationship.
Zoe clearly holds feelings for Cole, but when she runs the compatibility test, they receive a 0% result. When he explains why she begins to question everything. The less said, the better, as it’s one of the film’s surprises, but it sets the second half of the film in motion. At the same time, we watch as she begins bonding with Ash (Theo James), Cole’s newest synthetic. How the relationships unfold, and what becomes of each, is best left for you to discover, but the film does end on a brilliantly emotional note.
The performances of Ewan McGregor and Lea Seydoux in “Zoe” rank easily among the best of their respective careers. Both convey the heartbreak of their characters (for very different reasons) with understated resonance. McGregor’s character could easily have been made villainous in a different movie, but here, you truly feel for him. It ranks right up there with “Beginners” as one of his most tender parts. Seydoux is even better. The vulnerability and feelings she allows her face to exude will wreck you. She’s best in show, turning in work that you won’t soon forget. In fact, the flick would arguably be better if she had even more screen time. Theo James is solid as well, though his character is slightly more of a plot device. Supporting players include Rashida Jones as Cole’s ex, along with Christina Aguilera, Miranda Otto, and more.
Drake Doremus has explored love and sci-fi previously, with “Equals” (which played at a previous Tribeca), but this is on a whole other level. Co-writing with Richard Greenberg and directing, this is the best combination of visuals and storytelling for Doremus since “Like Crazy” about seven years ago. His direction again makes use of color heavily, while his writing, paired with Greenberg, tackles big ideas. At its core though, this is still about love, which is the filmmaker’s real strength. No matter how he’s choosing to approach the theme, he gets it. The plot periodically loses its way, but it always comes back to the emotional core of the story.
Some may find the drug subplot too dissimilar to the human/robot relationships at the core of “Zoe,” but the payoff more than makes up for it. After all, who hasn’t thought back to the moment they first fell in love? If that could essentially be bottled and sold, wouldn’t it hold tremendous appeal? The fact that Doremus doesn’t portray this as an evil invention either is a stroke of genius. His view of the future is neither dystopian nor utopian, but rather fairly plausible.
As long as you keep an open mind, “Zoe” is something that should get under your skin in the best way. Amazon Studios has a good one on their hands here. This should help get Doremus to the next level, which he truly deserves. One of the higher profile Tribeca movies this year, it wound up being one of the better ones. Bravo.