Zoe (2018) directed by Drake Doremus and Richard Greenberg is one of those films you have to be wary of. It seems to have its finger on the pulse of technology trends and science fiction themes; however, Zoe is a film that pulls elements from far better sci-fi movies and doesn’t seem to offer any real opinions or make any new points while doing so. It could be easy for this film to trick audience members into the idea that it has something meaningful to say, but really, it borrows heavily without seeming to have any idea what the sources were trying to do.
Zoe is ambitious, but ultimately disappointing with its storytelling
Zoe (Léa Seydoux) works at a research company that deals with dating. The company has three divisions, with the most popular one being a device called “The Machine”, which is capable of determining the probability of two people staying together in a meaningful relationship. Another deals with pharmaceuticals, which also attempt to create love connections of some kind. The third is led by Cole (Ewan McGregor), who is attempting to create a synthetic person with artificial intelligence that can become a companion to a human, that will love them perfectly and truly forever. Zoe’s proximity to Cole has ignited feelings for him, but he seems to be keeping her at a distance while yet still appearing interested in her, too.
It’ll be hard to discuss this film without giving away a few early twists, especially in order to criticize some of the problems with it. McGregor and Seydoux give earnest performances that are predominately enjoyable, despite the film they are a part of. McGregor’s charm is as strong as always early in the film, and he brings Cole to life as a result. Cole is divorced from Emma (Rashida Jones) after they scored low on the Machine’s test. He appears to be skeptical of love since this event, which possibly serves as the motivation for his research into synthetics. Zoe seems to see this in Cole and hesitates to reach out to him, but she can’t list help asking how they scored a 0% compatibility score as there is clearly chemistry between them. The answer is one of the films first twists, which initially seemed very compelling, but dwindled quickly.
Cole’s biggest success in his synthetic research is Ash (Theo James), who is an extremely human-like synthetic. Ash quickly develops “feelings” for Zoe, and seems to be jealous of her attraction to Cole. Ash seems completely human, which of course he is an actor playing a synthetic, so technically he is a human – and that’s where the twist comes in. Ash isn’t Cole’s first successful synthetic human at all…but who is? To preserve parts of this film, that detail must be omitted for the time being. However, the reveal doesn’t lead to an entirely satisfying experience. In fact, as the movie drags on, the ideas that it borrows from films like Blade Runner, Ex Machina, and Her don’t get new ideas added, nor does it have the original ones expanded upon. The film falls short in every borrowed idea, and adds nothing to truly make it an enjoyable experience beyond the performances. Even the power of McGregor can’t salvage this film.
Zoe attempts to show ambition, but rather is a weak facsimile of better films that came before. It truly feels like the director and writers didn’t know what they wanted to say, but thought it would be cool if they made a movie about synthetic people. A.I. is a real thing, and it doesn’t have to be depicted as evil, but the themes this movie toys with don’t really amount to anything. There is also an element to the end of the film where a synthetic develops an ability it shouldn’t be able to, which doesn’t really make sense within the context of the film, and instead seems like a tacked-on ending. Zoe earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.