Drake Doremus directs a very specific kind of film. His films are almost exclusively romantic dramas- a rarity amongst film directors- and capture intense longing felt between troubled couples who attempt to navigate the social obstacles and personal barriers that tend to obstruct relationships. While one may look to his film Newness for an example of a film that is very personal and relatable to twentysomethings, one may also look to Equals, a film that acts as a thought experiment of sorts, portraying a relationship confined within a dystopian world. Zoe is a mix of the two. While the film does take place in the future, Doremus hones in on how love (or lack thereof) is experienced by youth today, with science fiction elements constructing the distance between a troubled couple. The surroundings change, but humanity itself seldom does.
Ewan McGregor and Léa Seydoux act as the couple, Cole and the titular Zoe, the pair joined by Rashida Jones and Christina Aguilera to form arguably Doremus’s most star studded cast. In the exposition of Zoe, Doremus crafts a world that depicts even more devastatingly the difficulties that people experience when attempting to form personal connections with others. Artificial intelligence has progressed couples’ compatibility tests to the pinnacle and “synthetics” (essentially human-lookalike robots) have been marketed to permanently cure loneliness. A synthetic would never leave you for someone else or give up on a relationship. Yet they’re also given the ability to feel emotions.
An additional, most disturbing technological progression is a pill called Benysol that activates the neurotransmitters of a person so that any interaction with someone else who takes the pill is akin to falling in love for the very first time, regardless if there is existing personal connection felt between the two or not. Benysol parties develop and the pill begins to show its addictive quality- those who take it wonder afterwards whether or not they’ll be able to feel love again without the pill.
It is through these scientific developments that Doremus creates essentially a dystopia that teeters between unsettling uncanny valley and honest plausibility. Characters on-screen seem to be accepting of the lives they live. For instance, Cole’s ex-wife (Rashida Jones) is happy when he forms a relationship with a synthetic (a markedly different reaction from Theodore’s ex-wife in Her). Still, Zoe is unexpectedly disturbing for audiences today. Doremus is remarkably courageous in his navigation of one possible future that we could create for ourselves.
Nonetheless, Zoe isn’t without its flaws. The romance at the center of the film lacks believability, not to the fault of the actors, but rather to the fault of the screenplay and cinematography. Cole and Zoe’s romance feels underdeveloped because of over-usage of montage sequences, and while certain scenes of the film are beautiful, relentless use of close-ups and lens flare make conscious the fact that we’re watching a movie. The synth-infused soundtrack can also be imposing rather than immersive.
As a film, Zoe succeeds best at making us consider the progressively increasing role of technology in our lives rather than in telling a love story. Doremus expresses a calm acceptance of the role of artificial technology and the changes it brings and his message in Zoe is clear, especially to those who have seen his recent films: love prevails over all else. But in Zoe’s case, love prevails at the expense of story.