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Why did Foe flop?

The sci-fi film starring Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan was one of the most-hyped films of the year – but it’s faced brutal reviews since its release

Released at the 2023 New York Film Festival as part of the Spotlight Gala, Foe was one of the most anticipated films of 2023. With Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal as leads and Garth Davis (Lion) as director, it isn’t difficult to see why. But with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 24 per cent and a Letterboxd average of 2.8, it’s safe to say the film was undeniably a letdown.

Its critics include Rex Reed, who wrote for the Observer that “Foe is not just a bad dream. It’s a colossal nightmare”. For podcast FilmWeek, Christy Lemire echoed this sentiment, claiming that the film was “a literal and figurative hot mess”. The Guardian savagely dubbed it a “dull Black Mirror knock-off”. Clearly, critics were not all too impressed with the film – but what went so wrong? How could a film starring two of the most ‘it’ actors of this generation flop so badly?

Prefaced in title cards, Foe begins in 2065 against the backdrop of the Midwest and follows the story of a married couple, Junior (Paul Mescal) and Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan). Ravaged by global warming, the Midwest is drought-stricken and cropless, with new AI robots (who are copies of humans) now taking over their jobs. Junior works for an industrial chicken plant, Hen at a diner: they enjoy the mundanity of their lives, living in their 200-year-old barn.

But this is quickly shattered when a ‘government official’ named Terrence, knocks on their door. He informs the couple that Junior has been chosen as part of a lottery to move to another planet. The process will involve Junior moving to a space station to await settlement of the new planet in a year’s time. A year passes and Terrence reappears and informs the couple that the spaceship will leave in just two weeks. Terrence then fills in the couple on his plan to replace Junior with a clone of himself while he is gone. In the meantime, he will stay with the couple, observing Junior for two weeks in order to create the most accurate AI replica of him possible.

On the surface, the film sounds promising. In theory, there should be plenty of relevant, interesting themes to explore: like whether AI can really faithfully capture a person’s soul or the human impact of the climate crisis. But the plot falls flat, largely as a result of clunky lines, such as Hen’s clichéd “I’ve always had this fantasy that there’s something else out there for me”. The ability of both actors, particularly Mescal, do shine through: in one particularly memorable scene, Junior is provoked by Terrence to the point of despair, repeatedly punching at the wall of his bedroom and running off a powerful dialogue about feeling disgusted by the life around him. But there’s only so much Mescal can do with such a laughably bad script. As one Letterboxd user wrote in their review, the film “made Paul Mescal put his entire emotional bandwidth into a monologue about snot”. 

As the film climaxes, the viewer is finally allowed an insight into Junior’s madness as the twist is revealed: the ‘real’ Junior, it turns out, has actually been the replica all along. But unlike other sci-fi films such as Arrival that effectively execute a meaningful twist, Foe’s attempt just seemed a little pointless. While it was relieving to finally actually understand what was going on, I’m still now at a loose end trying to understand what the film was trying to convey. Is it a commentary on the climate crisis? Is it about the immorality of AI? Is it about relationships? Or is it none of these at all? Another Letterboxd user dubbed the film “Paul Mescal being naked: the movie” with another suggesting “two stars [only] for Saorise Ronan and Paul Mescal”. Ultimately, the film relies too much on its star-studded cast and doesn’t focus enough on themes or ideas – which is a massive oversight for a sci-fi movie.

That said, the tirade of hate against Foe is slightly overblown. The film isn’t that bad, it just lacks a lot of emotion and has a bad script. The subtleties and nuances of Junior and Hen’s relationship don’t come across and as a result, the film feels a little bland and meaningless. But if you are down for 110 minutes of great cinematography, a confusing plot and Paul Mescal being sexy, then this film is worth seeing. Just don’t expect a mind-blowing commentary on AI, the climate or even relationships – as you will leave disappointed.