Set in a future when devastation of the environment has humanity turning to outer space as a homestead, “Foe” presents a spectacle of futility. Not the climate change disaster itself, which is tangential to the plot, but the sight of great actors throwing themselves into this material, as if they were slogging through a Tennessee Williams marathon instead of the equivalent of a distended “Twilight Zone” episode with an aesthetic that might be described as “Dorothea Lange filter.”
The actual source is a 2018 novel by Iain Reid, who wrote the screenplay with the director, Garth Davis (“Lion”). The subject isn’t the dystopia, but a marriage. One night in the year 2065, Junior (Paul Mescal) and Hen (Saoirse Ronan), who live on a farm in the Midwest (played by Australia), are approached by a car with “Blade Runner” headlights. The driver is Terrance (Aaron Pierre), who brings news he insists should be seen as positive. (Pierre does not have a role that calls for the consuming physicality of Mescal’s and Ronan’s, but he does have a sly way of asking for a glass of water — a scarce resource — so the request sounds vaguely like a threat.)
Junior has been selected as a candidate for off-world colonization. Nothing will happen just yet, the couple are promised, but of course — to skip ahead to Terrance’s second visit, a year later — something does. Junior’s advancement to the next round means that Terrance will need to move in with them, to probe Junior like a lab rat. Also, don’t worry! While Junior is away, Hen will live with a biological replacement — a replica that has living tissue and Junior’s memories. It’s the high-tech equivalent of leaving a war wife with a photograph, Terrance explains, except that this photograph can live and breathe. All to help their marriage survive, naturally.
The proposal gets a bad laugh, perhaps not entirely intended. Junior doesn’t like the idea of Hen cohabitating with a fleshy facsimile, and he suspects that Terrance is trying to drive a wedge between them. But partly because the narrative reveals information piecemeal, the marriage can only be defined in generic, broadly symbolic terms. (The two wed straight out of school; Junior resents when Hen plays the piano.)
To their great credit, the Irish stars, often loosely clothed and soaked in sweat from the lack of air conditioning, have such presence and chemistry that it’s possible to believe in their intimacy — the pull and tangle of their bodies, their paroxysms of anguish — and even to pretend in the moment that they have full-fledged characters to play.
Drawn to magic-hour vistas and pseudo-poetic shots of ripped greenhouse plastic blowing in the wind, “Foe” looks as if it’s been bronzed. (The cinematographer Matyas Erdely, of Laszlo Nemes’s “Son of Saul” and “Sunset,” works wonders with natural light.) But the cryptic, allusive mode is at odds with the film’s efforts to psychoanalyze a marriage. The archetypal characters of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” — almost certainly a visual influence — merely had to suggest back story. Here, Hen and Junior’s glanced-at history is asked to carry weight the sketchy outlines cannot bear.
The hollowness turns out to be a feature, not a bug, and a completely unnecessary final beat dispels any troubling ambiguities that might have lingered. What begins as a sleek, science-fiction-tinged mystery leaves little more than a cloud of dust.
Rated R. Spousal estrangement. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. In theaters.