“Zoe,” a chilly but soft-headed do-androids-dream-of-electric-love? sci-fi romance, is one of those movies in which the future is depicted as being a heartbeat away from the present, a scheme that serves two neatly interlocking purposes. It allows an ambitious indie filmmaker — in this case, Drake Doremus — to make a science-fiction fantasy on a relatively low budget. It also allows him to make an atmospheric statement about how the technological fetishism of today is fast becoming the only reality of tomorrow.
In “Zoe,” love is something that people still pine for, but it’s been quantified, codified, systematized. Every one of your deepest yearnings is on-line. (Sound familiar?) The film centers on a company called Relationist, which interviews people by computer to match them up with ideally fitting partners (lady-robot voice to prospective couple: “Your chances for a successful relationship are 75 percent. Congratulations!”). The company also markets a drug that simulates feelings of romantic euphoria (“Try Benysol, and fall in love for the first time. Again”). And then there’s its most revolutionary invention, which is just emerging from the experimental stage: astonishingly lifelike synthetic humans, all designed to be the “perfect” partners who will never leave or disappoint you.
They’re the creation of Cole (Ewan McGregor), an artificial-intelligence engineer at Relationist who may (ya think?) be compensating for his own loneliness. Cole is divorced (though his ex-wife, played by Rashida Jones, is still strikingly tender and affectionate), and he has a son of about 10, but every night he goes home to his apartment, pours some wine, and sinks into the sadness of his isolation. McGregor, in a buzz cut and stylish horn rims, plays Cole as a saintly geek who’s become gun-shy in love, which may explain why he’s so boyishly tentative and faltering when it comes to flirting with Zoe (Léa Seydoux), a division head at work who’s sweet and smart and gazes at him with adoring eyes, as if their relationship were simply meant to be.
It’s hard to discuss “Zoe” without revealing the film’s essential premise, so let me toss in a spoiler alert before I explain why Cole and Zoe, even when they’re just glancing at each other, appear to be floating on a gauzy romantic cloud somewhere above the rest of humanity. Zoe (pronounced “Zoh”) is a synthetic human, designed by Cole. So is Ash, a Relationist prototype played by Theo James, looking more than ever like a suave young British Billy Zane. These two characters are the film’s dream image of the future; they’re the touchy-feely replicants you want to fall in love with. What makes Zoe even more special is that she’s been designed to have no awareness that she’s synthetic. And Cole, unwittingly, has nudged himself right into the center of his experiment by swooning for his own creation.
Léa Seydoux, from “Blue is the Warmest Color,” doesn’t play Zoe as an eerily flawless virtual beauty who’s too good to be true. On the contrary, she seems just good enough to be true, which is, of course, part of the logic of movies. After all, it isn’t just A.I. nerds of the not-so-distant future who are in the business of devising impossibly perfect human beings. So are filmmakers. (They’ve been doing it for 100 years, starting with Lillian Gish and Cary Grant.) Seydoux, her wide face and toothy incandescent smile framed by straight blonde tresses cut, strikingly, into bangs, speaks with a mild accent, and she floods the screen with awareness. The whole design of “Zoe” is that we never question Zoe’s humanity — her desire, her ability to feel inner pain — because Seydoux, with her delicate radiance, makes it apparent that those things are all too real.
So where’s the downside of Cole falling in love with her? Where’s the dramatic conflict? It’s all there in Cole’s reticence. (In other words, there isn’t enough of one.) Doremus is a talented director, but he’s too in thrall to the elevated sentimentality of his conceits. This is his second feature in a row, after “Newness,” his perils-of-the-hookup-culture love story, in which he has dissected the spirituality of “feelings” in the age of technology. But “Zoe” doesn’t have much to say that’s new on the subject.
The film’s novelty is that Doremus, having devised a sci-fi projection of where the world of digital connection is headed (with a cautionary wink at the use of pharmaceutical drugs to enhance our emotional lives), has built his story around the warm and fuzzy idea that the romance between Cole and Zoe is just fine. In its way, it’s a fashionable light-side-of-the-machine L.A. view of things. If it feels good to love a replicant, do it!
It’s Cole who has the problem. He dives in, then draws back. As Zoe’s creator, he knows more than anyone that she isn’t real. Yet where are his feelings for her coming from? “Zoe,” like Cole, ties itself up in a lot of high-minded hand-wringing, and the result is that the movie, though it’s not badly told, fails to grip you. Could it find an audience? A modest one, perhaps, but it’s too moody, too languid. It should have been called “Fifty Shades of A.I.”
It’s not as if Doremus is above commercial calculation. Once again, he has fallen for a visual scheme — a filtered metallic glow — that’s supposed to be soulful but makes the movie look like a pretentious wine-cooler commercial. And he creates a subplot set in a brothel of robot prostitutes — not realistic ones like Zoe, but obvious synthetic-skinned party-doll androids, notably one portrayed by Christina Aguilera, a piece of stunt casting that works well enough (she’s fine playing a character of sexy vacancy) but that still doesn’t add up to much. Doremus has been spinning out variations on his moony, push-pull romantic vision ever since “Like Crazy” (2011), and here’s some advice to him: He should consider signing on to do something more studio-friendly and less “personal.” Because right now what he’s making is okay, but it’s really just the squishy art version of studio conventionality.