Foe review – Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan can’t lift dull Black Mirror knock-off

<span>Photograph: Amazon Studios</span>
Photograph: Amazon Studios

In the year 2065, water and fertile land are precious resources. The US midwest, ravaged by heat and drought, is sparsely populated and barren. Also, new technology allows AI to create sentient, indistinguishable copies of humans.

Related: All of Us Strangers review – Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott tremendous in a beautiful fantasy-romance

Such are the opening facts, delivered in title cards, of Foe, starring Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan as a married couple conscripted into an off-planet settlement program. The concept sounds like a lesser Black Mirror episode and, indeed, the film never escapes the long shadow of the hit-and-miss UK television series, which triggered a wave of underbaked, easily forgotten sci-fi. (Does anyone remember the AMC series Soulmates?)

Based on the book by Iain Reid, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Garth Davis (Lion), Foe struggles to rise above this association. Its central tension – that Mescal’s Junior will be replaced by an AI replica while he’s away for an experiment at a government space station – is done better, with thornier and more searing consequences, in the superlative 2013 Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, starring Domhnall Gleeson as an AI facsimile for Hayley Atwell’s late boyfriend.

The first half of the film at least conjures an ominous, lonely vibe, if not much in terms of story. Isolated in a 20th-century farmhouse battered by dust storms and heat, Junior and Henrietta (Ronan) eke out a meager existence. He handles chickens at an industrial farming tower, believably and queasily rendered; she works a diner (who are the patrons?). She sometimes plays the piano in the basement, beautifully filmed though milked for symbolism too many times; he drinks.

One evening, a portentously suave government representative named Terrance (Aaron Pierre) appears in a self-driving polygon car with strange news: Junior has been randomly drafted into an experiment for extra-terrestrial life, Earth dying as it is. A year later, he returns to move in and observe, interview and provoke the couple in the weeks before the mission, in part to help craft the best possible replacement for Junior (news of which prompts Junior to deliver such choice lines as “I don’t want a robot living with my wife”).

That’s basically the movie – Terrance disrupting an already strained couple’s tenuous grasp on each other, amid a creaking old house and sterile landscapes. (Victoria, Australia, stands in as a redder, starker, more arid version of the American midwest.) What sparks exist are conjured only by Mescal and Ronan’s best attempts to infuse scattershot, circular storytelling with wells of steely emotion. Mescal has yet to film an unconvincing intimate scene and continues his streak here – he and Ronan, brittle and on the brink, can be bruising and sensitive. But his midwestern accent distractingly staggers around near-Irish and country. (Ronan fares better though, to be fair, such accents could be irrelevant in 2065?)

The two leads do their best here, but even they cannot scrounge enough feeling out of this desolate sci-fi. There are many things that fail to make sense during and after 108 minutes: why in the year 2065, Junior drives a beat-up pickup truck from the 90s; why the setting and costumes are mid-century style, a strange combination of futuristic and period piece that never coalesces; why Junior and Hen were chosen; why the US government sends a British man as its representative for off-planet science experiments; why Terrance does almost anything; why the film is called Foe.

It does seem like a movie that would work better as a book, the text better able to absorb the wordlessness of Junior and Hen’s crumbling marriage, the sinister waiting days before his departure and the eerie bareness of the climate crisis better than Davis’s film, which feels more remote and repetitive than provocatively alien. The final act’s silly twist unravels whatever tension remained, to unfortunately comical ends; at the screening I attended, a few people laughed at what should have been the film’s peak serious moments.

Which is what happens when the gravitas is unearned. Foe lavishes plenty of visually intriguing shots on moments meant to be ominous – the wind brushing the crinkled grass, blood pooling in the shower, beetles scrambling on wood, lush crop circles dotting barren landscape. Characters staring in doubt, confusion, frustration. There’s plenty of ambition and talent, but without the crisp engine of story, it’s as dry as 2065 dirt.

  • Foe is screening at the New York film festival and will be released in the US on 6 October and in the UK on 20 October