As an Amazon Prime Exclusive, Zoe debuted quietly, with decent ratings (6.1 at IMDb), overshadowed by blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War and Jurassic World. It’s a love story featuring Zoe (Léa Seydoux) and her boss Cole (Ewan MacGregor). As per convention, the two fall in love, their love is tested and strained, and they eventually resolve their differences and live happily ever after. So, what’s different? A quarter way through, we discover that Zoe is a “synthetic.” She’s a machine, an android, an AI.
How did Cole meet her? He is the founder of a company that specializes in love. Couples schedule appointments to speak to an AI that determines the likelihood that their relationship will succeed. Many singles also take the test to determine who they should date.
Zoe is Cole’s next step towards solving humanity’s loneliness problem. As a synthetic, she is indistinguishable from her human counterparts. Her purpose is to connect with humans on a level that normal human beings rarely achieve. And she is the first of her kind.
Before we get to the underlying assumptions here, I want to say it’s a great film, with good acting, believable dialogue, and a soundtrack that accentuates the intimacy of the relationship. Take away the business around Zoe being a synthetic you’re left with a surprisingly heart-warming, melancholic, and intimate film about two people in love. Being an occasional fan of slow-paced love stories, I greatly enjoyed the story arc and would recommend the film to like-minded fans.
That said, the film’s attempt to meld synthetics and love reminded me of a poem I once wrote about paradoxes:
Halt the crash-less waves from on the shore-less sea;
Climb the edge-less cliff and feel the wind-less breeze.
See the darkest hole to drench in rain-less showers;
Swing upon a branch-less tree to live a timeless hour.
“I am free, I am free” I cry from on a height-less peak;
A simple sound of silence, was the answer told to keep.
Viewed solely as a love story between two people, disparate from AI, androids, and synthetic love, Zoe recalls Blue Valentine (2010). In other words, the AI and synthetic life business are merely layers added on top. It’s one thing to reduce the holistic experience of being human to the concept of synthetic AIs indistinguishable from us, but another to reduce one of the most irreducible, ineffable, inexplicable, metaphysical, and immaterial aspects of human existence, love. Does it work?
If you believe in a future where synthetic AI is nearly indistinguishable from human beings, that is your prerogative. But don’t ask me to suspend belief that somehow functions and probability maps can provide complete explanations for what love is.
It may sound rational to conjecture that love is merely an emergent property of consciousness that has matured throughout the course of human evolution. But emergence is no less of a “god of the gaps” belief than Zeus’s lighting or Thor’s thunder. Zoe is a great film but it presents a storyline often used to show how inexplicable and ineffable love is in order to get me to believe that it isn’t.
For example, the underlying dogma assumes reductionism (everything is material). Thus, the question addressed isn’t the obvious one, “Can a synthetic love a human?”; it is “Can a human love a synthetic?” The assumption, in other words, is that Zoe can definitely love. It is presented without explanation as if no explanation is needed. The story question is whether Cole can love her back. Fortunately, the film stays with the story; it does not turn into a manifesto for AI rights. For that reason, I’ll give Zoe a 5/10 on the dogma scale.
Also by Adam Nieri: A Mind Matters Review: Travelers” Portrays AI As A Benevolent God
Alita: Battle Angel (2019): A Mind Matters Review If you love anime and felt betrayed by the flop of Ghost, I would highly recommend Alita