By Josephine Chu
The idea that artificial intelligence will influence the future of our romantic lives has been explored many times on the silver screen.
But what distinguishes Zoe, the centerpiece screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is its focus on advanced technologies as a potential solution to our global epidemic of loneliness. Director Drake Doremus makes the case that AI can provide some relief from social isolation in our not-so-distant future.
For example, the film opens on a research lab that aims to improve lives by improving relationships. Not only does the company generate reports that tell couples the probability of a successful partnership, it also creates robot companions for people seeking intimacy. These robots, called “synthetics,” are essentially indistinguishable from humans. Some synthetics, like Christina Aguilera’s character Jewels, find themselves in underground brothels where they’re trapped working as prostitutes.
The story revolves around the relationship between Cole, an engineer played by Ewan McGregor, and Zoe, a synthetic Cole designed. Zoe is incredibly advanced. Her ability to develop real feelings for Cole blurs the increasingly thin line between humans and machines.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Doremus explained that Zoe reflects the “struggles that everyone goes through thinking about how technology can somehow fix any hole in your heart” — a concept that takes the form of a drug called Benysol in the film.
When taken along with another person, Benysol allows people to feel like they’re falling in love for the first time. It makes people feel less alone, at least temporarily. But as lovely as that sounds, Doremus is quick to remind us there’s a dark side to every invention.
Benysol soon evolves into the ultimate party drug of the future. People easily get hooked on the euphoric feeling, causing a drug problem reminiscent of the current opioid crisis. This vision of the future, where love is replicable and synthetic, highlights technology’s influence over our lives and the lengths people are willing to go to feel like they’re in love.
There’s a lot of literature out there showing how technology can hurt our ability to connect with other people. While Zoe offers a slightly different perspective — that technology could help mitigate loneliness in the future, it certainly points out the need to deepen our conversation about what we want out of technology and what parts of our humanity we want to protect.