The sci-fi genre is more alive and popular than ever. Just last weekend, Gareth Edwards’ original blockbuster The Creator debuted in multiplexes nationwide, while more arty movies like The Beast and Poor Things premiered at the 2023 New York Film Festival to almost universal acclaim. Now more than ever, sci-fi speaks to our particular moment in time, when the rise of AI technology magnifies humankind’s universal concerns about identity, aging, and mortality.
Joining the already crowded genre is the new film from Lion director Garth Davis, Foe. Taking place in the near future, Foe focuses on Hen (Lady Bird‘s Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Aftersun‘s Paul Mescal), a young working-class couple struggling to make ends meet in America’s heartland. Soon, they are presented with a dilemma: Junior has been offered an opportunity to join a prototype space colony and in his place, an AI replica of him will stay with Hen to keep her from becoming too lonely. Soon, Hen, Junior, and Junior’s double struggle with feelings of love, fear, and mistrust, and things get messy real fast.
In my conversation with Davis, I asked him what drew him to adapt Foe, why AI seems to be the dominant concern in cinema these days, and how his film is different, and surprisingly more hopeful, than the other dystopian sci-fi movies out there right now.
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: Garth, you’ve said in previous interviews that what drew you to adapt Foe was the appeal of the internal and the external. How did you strike that balance between tackling the state of a marriage while also depicting the state of the planet in the near future?
Garth Davis: The architecture of that, of connecting the personal to something as large as climate change, is something that very much excited me. Because if you get it right, there can be a spirituality in the storytelling; you can feel something that’s not in the words. There’s something under the surface of the film where you feel a deep connection with us on the planet. You find all these lovely rhythms within the main characters’ actions that reflect the actions of the planet.
I guess what I’m really proud of in the movie is that we do all of those things that we have to do in terms of moving the plot forward. But what comes out of the making of it is something very cinematic and special and quite spiritual. It was an awesome challenge that inspired everyone in the film, from the actors to the cinematographer to me, and influenced all the choices we made. We were serving this great mystery while also exuding, and exerting, these deep emotional and allegorical connections that are just below the surface.
AI is popping up in a lot of movies lately, from The Creator to The Beast to the latest Mission: Impossible movie, Dead Reckoning Part 1. Why do you think it’s such a fascinating subject for movies to cover right now and how does Foe add to that conversation?
With Foe, I use AI to show how Hen explores her marriage in a really interesting way. We didn’t set out to make a movie about AI, but it enables us to really explore a relationship in a way that you just couldn’t ordinarily. I think that’s what was profoundly exciting to us.
Also, AI raises questions about ethics, our responsibility to things that are sentient, and our responsibility to ourselves and to our relationships. So there are a lot of kind of common themes that really come to the surface because the AI is kind of at the center of the story, and it speaks to that spiritual level of consciousness and love.
Additionally, the global warming aspect of the story mirrors the ticking clock and the sense of urgency that Hen feels throughout the movie. At one point in Foe, Junior asks her if she’s afraid of dying and Hen says she only fears death if she isn’t ready. She doesn’t want to grow old and realize she missed her life, that she didn’t live it the way she wanted to live it.
I’m very aware that bleak, dystopian futures are overdone in science fiction, but I just thought this was something that also felt very imminent. I feel like we are going to be dealing with these things sooner rather than later. It’s going to be the reality of the way we live.
Did you look at other sci-fi movies from the past for inspiration? Or even non-genre movies like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which takes a similar no-holds-barred approach in examining a vulnerable marriage?
Sure. As I go along in my life, I’m collecting inspiration and stories. There are things that move me, I guess. When I was younger, I did more referencing, but now I don’t really do that. Maybe it might be a painting or it might be something else or a life experience that inspires me.
But yeah, Virginia Woolf was definitely something that I brought up [during filming]. I love those kinds of movies where the performances are so noisy and alive and imperfect and brave. I was very encouraging of the actors to remember those kinds of classic performances. With Foe, I really had a chance to kind of bring back all of those classic cinema elements that I grew up with and loved when I was younger.
Everything now just feels so manufactured, like everything’s decided completely before it’s made. In a sense, it’s not living when you see it on screen because someone has already figured out what it is. Yes, you have to make a lot of choices beforehand, but for me, when I go on to a set, I want to witness something special, something that’s happening at that moment, something I didn’t quite imagine while planning it or even conceptualizing it.
Foe’s story is tricky to talk about in great detail, but I imagine it was trickier for the actors in how they created their performances. What was your process like in helping Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal, who star as Hen and Junior?
It was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve done, but also one of the most exciting things as well. There are two realities in the movie: there’s the reality of what viewers are seeing for the first time, and then there’s the actual reality of the story, which is gradually revealed throughout the movie.
Because of this dichotomy, it affected the choices of the actors. It also affected the way we staged the scenes. So, for instance, when an actor turns away from someone, they have the ability to reveal a secret to the audience that isn’t seen by the other actors. With my director of photography, Mátyás Erdély, we asked ourselves what’s the most exciting way to place the camera to suggest something that’s not really happening and to create the impression in the audience that they don’t know what’s going on.
Foe is different from other dystopian sci-fi movies in that it ends on a hopeful note. What would you like your film to say to the audience that watches it?
I want to wake people up and for them to not take themselves or anything else for granted because they can lose it. We have to evolve, but we need to evolve in meaningful ways and we’ve got to think about the way we evolve and change. Foe ultimately says that stasis in any form is a kind of death. If we don’t change in regard to global warming, the planet will die. If we don’t evolve within our relationships, those will wither away as well. Those themes for me are very pertinent in the story.
Foe is now playing in theaters nationwide.
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