What a time to contemplate robots. At the same time that Silicon Valley tech moguls are being challenged about their business model of harvesting users’ personal information for their own profits and developing artificial intelligence to boot, there has been a bevy of new cinema contemplating the future of our computer-driven world. In the last year alone, Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld both wonder if sufficiently-developed artificial intelligence could grow to equal or even surpass human capabilities. Director Drake Doremus’ new Ridley Scott-produced film Zoe, which made its world premiere as a centerpiece selection at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, approaches the same question, but in a far more reductive fashion.
Léa Seydoux stars as the titular Zoe, who works in the world’s premier AI lab. Ewan McGregor plays Cole, the brilliant inventor who’s been brought on to develop robots (called “synthetics”) who can actually feel and empathize with human beings. Cole proves his genius by activating an all-new robot, Ash (Theo James). Ash’s presence unsettles Zoe, and she soon realizes that she, too, is a synthetic. She’s only a few weeks old, but she was given memories and allowed to believe she was a fully-functioning adult woman in order to see how other humans would react to her.
Rather than take this revelation as an opportunity to explore her own strange individuality, Zoe professes her love for Cole. The movie never quite clarifies whether this is because Zoe truly adores Cole’s awkward mannerisms and divorced-dad aesthetic or whether she just imprinted on him, like a baby animal does with the first adult it sees. The fact that Ash developed his own crush on Zoe within minutes of being alive suggests that it’s the latter, which makes the Cole-Zoe relationship a strange romance for the movie to focus on. The film certainly never explains why Zoe would be attracted to Cole aside from the fact that he created her. He spends most of the movie disheveled and confused (it’s like Zoe fell in love with the frumpier of McGregor’s Fargo twins), and rarely provides the affection she desires. The fascinating (and quasi-Oedipal?) dynamics of this attraction between creation and creator are, unfortunately, barely explored. The film might have been better served by a more intense focus on Cole and Zoe, since the story lines involving other characters like Theo and Cole’s ex-wife Emma (Rashida Jones) never really go anywhere.
Some of the most interesting science-fiction stories imagine robots who are developed as a utility or cheap workforce, only to later realize their own potential to challenge humans’ place as singular masters of the world. Zoe features no such development of self-consciousness, especially since the robots’ role as a source of human empathy and connection soon gets overshadowed by the development of a drug that grants the psycho-chemical experience of falling in love for the first time. On top of that, Zoe and Theo barely interact, so the film lacks the kind of robot-to-robot conversations that provide much of the fascination in Westworld. Stories like the aforementioned Ex Machina and Blade Runner see frustrated robots rebelling against the human creators who abandoned them, but Zoe lacks such revolutionary fervor, and doesn’t fill the void with anything else. Even after visiting an android brothel featuring Jewels (Christina Aguilera), Zoe still wants nothing more than Cole’s love. For his part, Cole’s only real struggle is debating whether he feels comfortable having sex with a machine he created.
Rather than challenging our preconceived views of consciousness and relationships, Zoe’s futuristic world is thus reduced to a male wish-fulfillment fantasy: What if you could create the perfect girlfriend, and she immediately fell in love with you forever? It would probably look something like this: an unimaginative waste of science-fiction potential. “Look” is the key word. Unlike another recent robot story, Janelle Monáe’s visual album Dirty Computer, Zoe does not fill its visuals with radical imaginings of how synthetic androids might dress themselves and how the world might change with them in it. Instead, the film’s sets are as white and drab as Kanye West’s recent decor tweets. This is a movie that casts Christina Aguilera as a robot and yet still manages to be boring. C