Understanding what makes us human is a major theme in science fiction. The genre is constantly challenging us to look at the world in new ways, whether it’s through time travel, apocalypses, or superhero stories.
One sci-fi subgenre that tends to dig deeper into our humanity is “artificial intelligence.” Films and TV series like A.I., Her, and Westworld have grandly imagined what science might accomplish in trying to create human-like androids that feel and respond to emotions as we do. But what happens when such a story takes that high concept and scales it down into a grounded, intimate drama?
This 2018 movie from director Drake Doremus (Like Crazy, Equals) aims to do exactly that. Set in the not-so-distant future, Zoe is a sci-fi romance about the fundamental relationship between computer and man — that of creation and creator — in fascinating ways.
Starring Ewan McGregor and Léa Seydoux, this introspective and at-times dazzling sci-fi tale is streaming on Amazon Prime. Here’s why you should add it to your queue.
Zoe (Seydoux) works with Cole (McGregor), one of the leaders at a research facility that develops technology aimed at augmenting romantic relationships. One of its innovations is a test that determines how compatible two people are. However, the facility’s more notable advancement involves its creation of human-like androids, called “synthetics,” who were at first designed to be primitive robots and intended to complete routine tasks. Now, synthetics are being optimized to become ideal romantic companions instead.
“I’ll never break your heart,” promises Ash (Theo James), one of the latest synthetics. “I’ll never leave you. And I am designed to love you and understand you in ways that humans simply can’t.”
While researching these synthetics, Zoe doesn’t at first realize that she’s one of them. In fact, Zoe is the first synthetic to be built with this deception in mind; developers programmed her with false memories from students and other scientists to make her feel more human. Cole decides to tell Zoe the truth, and her response to this revelation proves that she’s developed her own feelings. It’s clear that Zoe is an extraordinary prototype; slowly, she and Cole’s relationship blossoms as they begin to fall in love.
“There’s no humanity inside something you can turn off,” Zoe is told by The Designer (Miranda Otto), a madam at a synthetics brothel that feels right out of Westworld. Whereas Cole and the research facility see a brighter, optimistic future for synthetics, Zoe quickly discovers the dark side of the industry, especially once she meets and befriends Jewels, a synthetic sex worker played by Christina Aguilera (yes, the pop singer).
The question of humanity’s limits sits at the heart of Zoe. And though Cole is one of the movie’s protagonists, we spend more time with Zoe, seeing the world through her eyes. This technique positions the viewer to empathize more with an android than the film’s human protagonist. If anything, the audience is asked to slip into the role of Cole as “the difference between what we see and what we know” — as per his ex Emma (Rashida Jones) — starts to blur.
When a twist in the film disrupts the fantasy Cole’s living in, he distances himself from Zoe. At this stage, Doremus’ film meanders in both pace and tone, as the characters try to find their way in the world without each other.
On its surface, Zoe doesn’t seem like a sci-fi movie. Its familiar setting has a slightly futuristic edge. but the film’s overall look and feel recalls the director’s debut film, romantic drama Like Crazy — though it thankfully spares us that movie’s emotional gut-punch ending.
That said, Zoe asks massive questions that many of the best sci-fi movies endeavor to answer. And imperfect though the film is, like any good science fiction story, its ending scenes leave you with plenty to ponder as the credits roll. What more could you want?
Zoe is now streaming on Amazon Prime.