In his Oscar-nominated 2016 film Lion, Melbourne-based director Garth Davis introduced audiences to the true story of Saroo Brierley and his journey from India to Australia. In 2018, he followed it up with religious drama Mary Magdalene. For his latest film, Foe, Davis dives head-on into the future with a sci-fi romance starring Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal.
"I always loved sci-fi growing up. When my dad bought a Betamax machine, which was the first [VCR] machine to come out, it came with Alien,” Davis recalls.
Set in 2065, when the earth has been ravaged by climate change, and shot across various Australian locations including Melbourne’s Docklands, the Nullarbor and Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, Foe follows Hen (Ronan) and Junior (Mescal), a young couple living on isolated farmland in the American midwest.
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Their marriage is thrown into chaos when they're informed that Junior has been selected to become one of the first participants in a trial of humans living in space. Given no choice but to agree, Junior will be forced to separate from Hen, who will remain on Earth. Things become even more strained when they’re told Hen will be accompanied by an AI replicant of Junior during his absence.
The film is based on Canadian writer Iain Reid's book of the same name – with the screenplay co-written by Reid and Davis, who was drawn to the book’s urgent warning about the climate crisis.
Despite its sci-fi trappings, for Davis, Foe is less a speculative fantasy and more a foreshadowing of what lies ahead if we remain complacent. “It's just sad to me to see the state of the planet and where it's going," he says. “It's no surprise we're trying to get to Mars. It's like they're already planning for [climate destruction].”
The challenges of environmental extremes even made their way onto set. During filming at Winton Wetlands, in north-east Victoria, Davis had to contend with unprecedented climate variations.
“Every 15 to 17 years, [Winton Wetlands] gets floods. We weren't expecting there to be any rain for at least another 10 years. But the climate's upside down. We were getting all this rain and I was really worried that our set was gonna get flooded out,” he recalls.
Weather pressures aside, one of the highlights of making the film, for Davis, was working with Oscar-nominated actors Mescal and Ronan on home soil. “It's beautiful to be working in Australia on an international film. And to bring actors of such calibre out here and see them fall in love with it was a joy.”
Davis says both stars fitted right in and became like Melbourne locals during filming.
"The two of them had apartments in Fitzroy. They cycled everywhere, went to the local pool in the morning. They just didn't wanna leave.”
Another major subject Foe examines is artificial intelligence. In the film, Junior is immediately disturbed by the fact his wife will be living with an identical replacement. Davis considers it to not be a question of if, but when, these issues will become reality.
''We are on the cusp of sentience,” he says. "This wasn't the deal when we were making the movie – it’s just in the last six months to a year. If these things do become sentient, where does our responsibility lie?
“I think we have a responsibility to everything, not just ourselves.”
This sentiment also applies to the film’s environmental themes. “There is a direct relationship to why the planet's ruined right now. It's because of us. If we don't start changing the way we behave and start taking agency in that, I think it's gonna get bad.”
Foe is in cinemas now.