US (2018) Dir. Drake Doremus
Love conquers all or so they say. People can be incompatible on many levels but if that genuine spark is there then it becomes a non-factor. But what if there was a difference between two people that was so drastic that it is not just unwise but also dubious and maybe even unethical for them to get together?
In the near future, a company called Relationist have developed a computer programme named the Machine, which can successfully match someone up with a compatible partner based on their answers given in a probing interview. They also market a drug capable of recreating the euphoric effects of true love called Benysol, both the creation of expert AI engineer Cole (Ewan McGregor).
Cole – a divorcee after he and ex-wife Emma (Rashida Jones) received a low score from the Machine – is a pioneer in creating realistic human looking androids called Synthetics. Meanwhile, Zoe (Léa Seydoux) has romantic designs on work colleague Cole but knows nothing can happen as her Machine compatibility test is zero! Cole is forced to explain – spoiler alert – that Zoe is in fact a Synthetic herself, programmed without this specific piece of information, but this doesn’t stop them falling in love.
Part Bicentennial Man, part Her, and with a dash of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott is one of the film’s producers) and you have the basic gist of what Drake Doremus is going for with Zoe – or “Zo” as it is pronounced by everyone here. This is a slow building, and slow moving, sci-fi romance with a cute premise and big ideas put forward but lacking the capacity to explore them to the fullest.
The biggest issue is not so much the idea of androids having the capability of simulating human feelings as well as their looks and movements but why this should be done, since surely the idea of a synthetic creation is simply to replicate something. It is also likely some viewers might find the idea of a man wanting to sleep with a robot (even if she does look like Léa Seydoux) a bit creepy as it is the aesthetic they are attracted to.
Synthentics hitherto were created for reliable labour but not to look like robots, so the man or woman who delivers your post, sells you a drink, or cuts your grass isn’t a chunk of metal. Presumably, unemployment isn’t a concern as people are too busy taking Benysol and shagging their Machine approved life partner like it was the first time again!
By lacking in human emotions, Synthetics aren’t likely to get angry or upset so humans are safe from the dramas flesh and blood folk create from having feelings. But Cole wants to take this further, unveiling his latest update Ash (Theo James), a Synthetic that is able to feel emotions and read them in others. The difference is Ash knows he is a Synthetic where Zoe didn’t until Cole told her.
Quite how she didn’t know is not explained, meaning Zoe must lack basic observational skills not to notice how her fridge is always empty and her body parts lighting up under her skin! Interestingly, Cole may not have giving Zoe tear ducts preventing her from crying but did give her ability to feel sexual pleasure, raising the suspicion he may have designed Zoe purely to sleep with her.
Male readers might think this is a great idea – emotion free sex with a gorgeous woman – and the film briefly addresses this, with a robot brothel, the star attraction being soulless robot hooker Jewels (pop warbler Christina Aguilera), one of many slutty Synthetics predecessors built by a female engineer (Miranda Otto). According to Jewels, many men just want to talk rather than bonk but this isn’t followed up on to any satisfying extent.
And therein lies the problem with the script written by Doremus and Richard Greenberg – it throws out plenty of ideas and propositions crying out for discussion and exploration but chooses not to. It meanders from one situation to the next, keeping only half an eye on what went on before and not taking the time to explain or contextualise many of the developments.
The all important mid film crisis comes when Zoe is run over and in repairing her, Cole suddenly finds himself unable to look at his broken creation as a woman, breaking Zoe’s (synthetic?) heart when he can’t answer whether he can still love her after this. Both fall into a cycle of Benysol driven one-night stands to get over each other, meaning either Zoe is becoming more human or Cole is turning into one of his unfeeling Synthetics.
Chances are people might have stopped caring by now as the pacing and mood can best be described as languid to the point of anodyne, with muted colours being teased through a soft focus (and annoyingly jittery) lens, and a soporific, borderline dirge of a synth musical score overwhelming each scene where silence would suffice. At least it suits the sterility of this rather dull future world it presents to us.
Ewan McGregor plays Ewan McGregor – i.e., the same role he always plays – which is either a boon or a bust depending on your preference, but the male eye candy role is fulfilled by Theo James as Ash. So, it befalls to Léa Seydoux to convince us she isn’t really human despite looking and acting more human than most of the humans here. And very convincing she is too, carefully straddling that fine line between real and forced emotion through her ethereal presence.
As much as I wanted to like Zoe because of its intriguing premise, I found myself losing interest far too early on to feel that I did. Unless you like glacially paced pseudo-sci-fi films that try too hard to be clever, the star cast and early promise is not enough to warrant a recommendation. I hope that doesn’t sound too inhuman of me…