Sexbots return to the imagination in an indie tech tale that follows in the footsteps of ‘Her’ and ‘Ex Machina.’ Ewan McGregor & Léa Seydoux star.
As long as man has been making machines, he has contemplated what things he could replace with the infinite possibility of their malleable, mechanized hands. Pianos, abacuses, and swathes of the blue-collar workforce have long been notorious targets but, slowly, a softer target emerges. In New York Times columns, in forced plot twists on Mike Judge’s increasingly desperate HBO comedy Silicon Valley, people (largely men) contemplate developing serious feels for their little bots in lieu of available skin-and-bone creations. They arrive again in the premise of Drake Doremus’s latest movie, wherein a lanky Steve Jobs look-alike named Cole (Ewan McGregor) falls hard for a bot he designs named Zoe (Léa Seydoux).
Walking, talking and emoting sexbots, termed “synthetics,” are only one of the three new technologies that Zoe invents and contemplates: an algorithm for determining relationship compatibility—which caused Cole to go on the splits with now ex-wife Emma (Rashida Jones)—and a crushable drug called Benysol that manufactures the dope rush of falling in love for the first time and on which Cole gets hooked also appear. The prevalence of the bots also generates underworld brothels, which Cole & Zoe occasionally visit. Among these discount prostitutes, Christina Aguilera appears and is decorated in gothy plumage.
The bots are a primary concern and Doremus walks us through the stages of their development: teaching one to ballroom dance in one scene and delivering a Blade Runner-revelation to another, as Zoe begins the movie under the impression that her implanted memories had meant she was as human as her developers. Zoe’s self-awareness doesn’t affect her love life with Cole—they go on quirky dates montaged to popular Brooklyn slowcore revivalists, visit with Emma & their kid. An automobile accident and an earlier encounter with Aguilera’s cynical prostitution bot causes her to become aware of her mortality & suffer from the humanity of a mid-life crisis.
This digressiveness is good—too many indie sci-fis stick to one idea and expect it to entertain for an hour and a half. They rarely do, and the genre suffers next to the well-built, if poorly scripted, studio alternatives. In Zoe, these plots evoke a curious simulacrum of how technology targets the existential problems: loneliness, wasted time & wanting desperately to feel again. The interest in the first recalls Vonnegut—a passé thinker—but Doremus’s interest in the latter two present compelling ways to think about the world. Can what desire be reduced to generating drug-like highs? Would life ultimately be less interesting if an algorithm would permit you to avoid all the fuckboys in your life? What would we make indie dramas about?
The mathematical bluntness of TV tech spectacles like Black Mirror or Westworld is similarly avoided: plots come and go with a sneeze. For Doremus, Zoe follows last year’s Newness, a movie that used dating apps to study a couple articulating a polyamorous relationship which was released to minimal aplomb on Netflix. Like that movie’s couple (played by Nicholas Hoult and Laia Costa), Cole & Zoe are searching for themselves in others and with whom they believe they are convinced they can be happy. Zoe is an improvement because his wispy, AFI-trained style is made for the pop-minimalist future of a music video.
Early in the movie, Richard Greenberg’s script looks into our collective eye and assures us that its machines would be guaranteed to never leave us, a promise that his movie largely keeps. In it, I found what felt like a pointed critique of Spike Jonze’s Her, a movie that uses artificial intelligence as a stand-in for the line of incredibly intelligent people who have left Jonze at some point in his life and inflicts this suffering on viewers. While the project of using machines to satisfy carnal and/or romantic urges has been a part of the popular imagination at least since the original Westworld, Jonze’s movie had entertained the suggestion that real people wanted something ethereal, something more (human? chatty?). While Jonze was far too twee to give his imaginative version of Sofia Coppola or whatnot corporeal form (fair), Alex Garland, in the later Ex Machina, delivered another Job-ish brogrammer (helmed by Oscar Isaac) who jumped up and down over Garland’s innovation: walking and sometimes-talking fleshlights. Zoe constructs a dialogue between these two critically adored movies and peels apart the kind of fantasy they satisfy in order to obligingly critique it.
The most obvious criticism of these tech fantasies that Doremus does not attack, however, is their most glaring: replacing women with sexy robots is a really vanilla straight man’s idea of what the future looks like and negates the good faith of a universal experience that this genre alleges to speak to. Strangely, one male bot does appear, played by a strapping Theo James. He spends most of the movie moping around and containing the movie’s existential woes, but it’s kind of odd that nobody wants to bone him. (Abundant fanfiction exists as regards boning his character in Divergent, so this feels like a missed opportunity to explore anything other than heterosexual male desire.) Beyond the additional optics of these movies (white, straight men lusting after straight, white robotic women), you’d also think the future would also be kinkier than cups of coffee and skinny dipping.
As tech fantasias, these kinds of sci-fi try to locate desire somewhere between sex and good conversation, and Zoe strikes the sincerest balance between the two. In the movie’s best bit, Emma digs up a prototype of Cole’s eventual creation among his old things: a vibrating hunk of huggable plastic that rather looks like one of those human-shaped body pillows you see on the internet sometimes. Emma wants to know if he would be willing to part with it and, after some hesitation, Cole refuses. This is love trapped in the prism of objectification, the old crisis of late capitalism, Japanese rent-a-families, kids mindlessly mining their life for human capital. And we would go on as though nothing was wrong.