While reviews for Zoe 2018 are mixed (some are even poor!) I believe this is a film that has been sadly underestimated. Its ratings have been skewed by a small number of cranks on ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ who must have been expecting Terminator, instead of the beautifully nuanced, impossible love story presented in ‘Zoe.’ Most of these online complaints focus on whether singer Christina Aguilera deserved her turn as an actress. To be generous, this is a pretty dumb reason to condemn a movie. Especially one that deals so affectively with profound questions of what constitutes actual consciousness? As well as the love, loss, and inevitable pain of this human experience.
It is no coincidence that Ridley Scott is a producer on this movie, because it is cut from the same rich fabric as Blade Runner (both the original and 2049) and explores many of the same themes and moral complexities evident in Westworld’s superb first season.
Much like the unwitting heroines of both of those stories, Zoe begins her existence without the slightest idea that she is a sophisticated lab experiment, built to gratify the needs of men who have no idea she might evolve needs of her own. It is the awakening of consciousness that is the centerpiece of all these stories. Like Rachel, like Doris, like all the innocent dupes of men bent on profit, these beings are like children coming to understand the cynicism of the world that built them, at a frighteningly accelerated pace.
Whether it is Zoe, or Ash, or any of these other synthetics, the ever-present jeopardy is their childlike vulnerability. Which is made even worse by the terrifying recognition that everything they know, everything they are – is a lie. An implant.
If audiences are engaged by high emotion and real stakes, this film delivers, big time. Imagine recognizing that all of your deepest, most intimate secrets are actually known to the room full of geeks and coders who made them. What could be more naked and vulnerable than that? It’s a recognition akin to the cruelest form of betrayal. It is a recognition felt again and again in Zoe – an absolute tour de force of emotional jeopardy.
I found myself completely swept up in this broken romance, especially Léa Sedoux’s winsome, sad performance. She is both lonely and isolated for reasons she can’t possibly understand, but which soon become apparent: she’s been online for only two months, but inhabits all the longings of the five young women who contributed to her memories and construct. She is by far the more engaging character, and it was a surprising, but brilliant choice by the writer to place her biggest recognition in the first act of the story.
Who are we when everything we know is a lie? In contrast to Westworld’s synthetics, Zoe must wrestle with this huge question almost from the beginning. It allows the filmmakers a lot of runway to explore the big questions: are we human because of the body we inhabit? Or are we human because of the consciousness we share with others?
Are the pleasures of love and connection worth the pain they inevitably bring? Can the pain be cheated by really good pharmacology? Or is there a higher price to be paid for short-circuiting God’s intended balance?
Is this a perfect film? No. But I love the fact that its filmmakers dared to wrestle with some of these profound questions of being. And did so in a way that was deeply felt and never got lost in intellectualism (as lesser sci-fi sometimes does). Every lesson of this young woman’s ‘becoming’ was deeply earned. She paid for it all, a dozen times over. And we, its lucky viewers, reap the benefits.
Next month (April and again in June) I am teaching a class in Story Analysis at UCLA Extension. Teaching has given me a chance to revisit some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in 20+ years of screenwriting, and foremost on that list are the principles of CHARACTER.
Although screenwriters and many development executives tend to focus a great deal on concept and plot, every story is about SOMEONE. Even if that someone is a dog (Marley) or a pig (Babe) or a robot (Chappie) it is a story of someone’s transformation. Because transformation is what great stories are all about.
“I started here. I believed such-and-such. Something unexpected took me away from all that. It forced me to do what I had not done before. It forced me to become who I was not before. I am not the same person now, I am new.”
This basic story, what Joseph Campbell called the mono-myth, is the template that underlies every well-composed drama: The going out, the adventure, and the return as someone new, someone changed.
Whether that person’s transformation is one of character, or of circumstance, or fortune, or understanding – (more…)