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Zoe

Year: 2018
Production Co: Aperture Media Partners
Director: Drake Doremus
Writer: Richard Greenberg/Drake Doremus
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Léa Seydoux, Rashida Jones, Christina Aguilera, Miranda Otto

From Total Recall and Blade Runner to TV's Westworld and Ex Machina, we never get tired of the philosophical conundrum about whether robots that appear human enough to trick us into thinking that's what they are can really feel like we do or are just well programmed enough to fool us.

That's also what Zoe is all about, and it does it better than most. Zoe (Léa Seydoux) is a receptionist at a technology business that takes psychological profiles of couples in relationships and puts them through an algorithm to reveal the likelihood of their relationship surviving. Cole (Ewan McGregor) is a software engineer at the same company, and the two enjoy what appears to be a friendly while slightly fraught relationship, as if there's some unresolved romantic tension there.

For his part – and in expertly-done foreshadowing – Cole is also developing a robot helper, a half-finished dummy amid the belonging he still has to pick up from his ex's (Rashida Jones) house.

We soon learn that Zoe has feelings for Cole she can't suppress, and when she can't hold back her curiosity any longer she puts a theoretical relationship between them through the test at work, and is crestfallen when it reports that their chances of success are zero.

She tells Cole about it, admitting how she feels about him, and he reacts with an apparently knowing sadness, telling her he has to show her something. Unless it hadn't occurred to you (it hadn't to me), Cole gives her the jaw dropping news that Zoe she herself is synthetic, all her memories about her childhood, studying as a young woman and growing up fake signals in her electronic brain.

The one slightly hard-to-swallow note in the film is that when Zoe finds out she's a robot a few months old after believing she's a human being in her thirties she takes it all a bit too easily. Not that I expected her to turn into the Terminator in a romantic sci-fi drama and lay waste to everyone around her, and to be fair to the script by Richard Greenburg, the movie has more important things to get to rather than settle on trauma from illusions of selfhood, but it is a bit jarring.

However things continue when Zoe realises it doesn't change how she feels about Cole, and despite his intellectual misgivings about knowing he has an emotional response to a machine that feels slightly icky to him, Cole starts to fall for her too as he takes her on a whistle stop tour of the real places that meant something in her life but which were only programmed memories, her excitement and innocence about it making his heart melt.

But it still takes a lot for Cole to overcome the nagging awareness that what he feels is wrong, and when a fateful accident opens Zoe's true self (literally) to him, it seems to cut the last emotional ties.

They both go their own ways, getting lost in a new world where their former employers have launched a drug compound that simulates a few hours of the first dopamine rush of falling in love, getting hooked and jumping from one ultimately unfulfilling coupling after another and feeling empty like millions of others.

It seems inevitable they'll cross paths and give in to what they really feel for each other – the only question left the film has to ask is a philosophical one; not just can but should a human being experience love with a sufficiently believable facsimile of another human being rather than an actual one?

Given the genre there are no real prizes for guessing where it ends up, and questions about what happens when humans age and robots don't or biological procreation are conveniently left out for another day we never see.

But it's a film and not an ethics study, and the film is as gorgeous as the premise is thought provoking. It starts with Seydoux's air of hopeful vulnerability (to say nothing of her physical beauty), and the soft visual photographic tone and lyrical soundtrack are as warm and cushiony as the story. Sequences of real visual beauty (like the museum exhibit where bursts of colour that correspond to the viewers' emotional states appear on giant LCD screens) only add to the sense of visual artistry.

It knows enough about the science behind the concepts to build a convincing world, and uses them to support an affecting love story with great performances.

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