These Movies Focus On A Very Real Crisis — But They Could Do Better

As The Planet Cooks, Climate-Change Movies Still Can’t Make Sense Of It

Two upcoming movies screening at this year’s New York Film Festival feature the climate crisis as their backdrop, producing decidedly mixed results.

This year has been filled with floodsearthquakeswildfires and record-breaking heat, all of which have unfortunately become routine. The climate crisis has never felt more real and immediate. So it couldn’t be more timely that two upcoming movies screening at this year’s New York Film Festival feature it as their backdrop.

Unlike in real life, however, the movies are not as clear about what they’re trying to say, producing decidedly mixed results. One of them, “Evil Does Not Exist,” is a meditative and grounded look at the present — up until an uncharacteristic twist in its final act, which mutes its overall effect. The other, the overstuffed sci-fi drama, “Foe,” which premieres in theaters Friday, squanders both an eerily relevant premise and a set of usually great actors.

From Oscar-winning “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, “Evil Does Not Exist” takes place in a rural Japanese community, where its residents live sustainably off of the land. Early in the movie, there are long, methodical scenes of protagonist Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) chopping firewood and collecting fresh water from a spring.

The community is within driving distance of Tokyo, so a company is keen on developing it into a glamping resort. This culminates in a darkly comedic scene, when the company sends two well-meaning but clueless representatives to hold a community meeting to discuss the proposed resort. Takumi and his fellow residents proceed to eviscerate the representatives, poking holes in their plans and exposing their incompetence. The residents’ lines of questioning and the representatives’ empty answers reveal how the company — inexplicably, a talent agency — parachuted into the community, simply for profit.

None of the company’s plans seem to involve any environmentally sound practices or basic knowledge about the mechanics of the community. For instance, the residents point out that the planned septic tank would not support the resort if it reaches its full capacity of tourists. And whoever drew up the plans didn’t seem to take into account whether the community lies upstream or downstream. The residents raise concern after concern, and the representatives politely reply that they hear them. (“We hear for you!” as Tom Wambsgans on “Succession” would say.) The residents know it’s all for show — it’s like talking to a wall.

Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and his daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) in a scene from "Evil Does Not Exist."
Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and his daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) in a scene from “Evil Does Not Exist.”/NEOPA, FICTIVE

Yet the representatives, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), aren’t exactly empty suits. They later visit again to learn more about the community, following Takumi around on his daily routine. Takahashi comically tries to cut the firewood himself.

The movie is full of these sorts of carefully observed and atmospheric scenes, reminiscent of the ruminative nature of “Drive My Car.” There’s something both comforting and haunting watching Takumi’s daily routine amid the backdrop of vast snow-covered forests. It’s ironic that it made me want to spend more time in nature, and that, for a city-dweller like me, the likely way to do so might involve going to the kind of place the residents of this community are trying to stop.

But abruptly, the movie reaches an incongruous twist ending that’s unsettling. There’s so much ripe material about late-stage capitalism and what happens when nature is turned into a commodity. It felt like the movie was heading toward something…and then it swerved off course into something a bit too philosophical and abstract. The confounding ending takes away from the movie’s otherwise very salient points. Movies that leave more questions than answers can be intriguing — but here, I’d like to not have left the movie on such a discordant note.

It’s also unclear what “Foe” is trying to say, though that’s the least of its problems. When done well, science fiction can feel unsettlingly real and close to home, warning us of a grim future that isn’t so far away. “Foe,” while it aims to be, unfortunately is not that.

The movie begins in 2064. Earth has been ravaged by the climate crisis, becoming increasingly uninhabitable. Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal) are a couple trying to survive in a largely abandoned, drought-ridden and wildfire-prone corner of the Midwest. Hen dreams of moving elsewhere, but Junior, whose family has lived on the same farm for generations, stays put. (One cannot help but wonder why this film, directed by an Australian director, filmed in Australia and stars two Irish actors, takes place in the midwestern United States. It could take place in any number of locations, given that the climate crisis is everywhere and affecting us all.)

One night, Hen and Junior receive a mysterious visitor: Terrance (Aaron Pierce), a representative from a government organization. He informs them that Junior has been selected as part of a random group of participants in a pilot program for humans to live in space.

There’s another catch: Terrance will also interview, record and observe the couple before Junior leaves, in order to develop an AI replica of him — essentially giving Hen an AI husband when the real Junior leaves for space.

From there, the movie constantly makes some baffling choices. For starters, there is simply too much going on: a sci-fi and survivalist thriller, with a marital drama stuffed inside of it. Hen has had to continually suppress her desires, and Junior’s choices seem to have dominated their marriage. But it’s all just too much — especially when much of this is told to us rather than simply shown.

Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal) in "Foe."
Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal) in “Foe.”/AMAZON STUDIOS

Ironically, given the movie’s exploration of whether AI can ever really stand in for the real thing, neither Hen nor Junior feel like real people. Their motivations are at times incomprehensible, made worse by a lot of ham-fisted dialogue. Ronan and Mescal’s performances are strangely flat and stiff for two actors I normally really enjoy watching. In the last few years, Mescal has consistently excelled at movingly playing introspective characters (including in another movie at this year’s festival: “All of Us Strangers”). But here, he pushes way too hard to tell us how Junior is feeling, as opposed to showing it. It’s uncharacteristic for an actor who is so good at restraint and quiet vulnerability, like in his roles in “Normal People” and “Aftersun.” To be fair, both he and Ronan are clearly trying their best. It’s hard when the rest of the film is not serving them well.

While one is decidedly better than the other, both of these movies suggest some larger dilemmas when tackling stories about the climate crisis. It’s not lost on me that I saw these movies just before record-breaking rainfall drenched New York City on Friday, flooding the subway system and ground-floor apartments, and leaving much of the city at a standstill. Over the last decade, tropical rainstorms have become a more and more frequent occurrence in New York and the mid-Atlantic region, in addition to other climate crisis-induced weather catastrophes lately.

Movies and other pop culture can help us make sense of big problems and hold a mirror up to them. But when real life is vivid and scary enough, maybe there’s a particularly high bar for movies to interpret. When the problem is abundantly clear and happening all around us, and the solutions have been painfully too slow and too feckless, what else is there to say?

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