Robot Romance and Daring Indies

Posted July 12, 2018 6:15 p.m. EDT

The best way to approach “Zoe,” a science-fiction romance that debuts on Amazon Prime on July 20, would be to skip past the first 25 minutes. At this point, you can enjoy a good swath of the chemistry between the lead actors, Ewan McGregor and Léa Seydoux, as their characters discover each other and enrich their time together. They really do make a nice couple. It’s the buildup to this section, and the subsequent fallout from it, where you find trouble areas.

The film’s director, Drake Doremus, first made an impression on me with his 2011 picture “Like Crazy,” a story of young love fraying apart because one character, a British woman with a limited visa, might have to leave the United States. The movie was frank and brisk; its lead performances, from Anton Yelchin (who died in 2016); Felicity Jones; and before-she-was-a-star Jennifer Lawrence, were all excellent.

The director took what I considered to be a very wrong turn in his futuristic 2016 romance “Equals,” set in a ludicrous society in which Love Is Forbidden. In 2017, “Newness” brought matters back to the present, critiquing the Tinder-driven dating life with splashy but mixed results. (All these films can be seen on Amazon; “Equals” is free for Prime members.) For “Zoe,” written by Richard Greenberg, Doremus goes back to the future, focusing on a love scientist, Cole (McGregor), who’s engineering “synthetic companions.” One of the best employees at his low-rent-looking company is Seydoux’s title character, who crushes hard on Cole.

After shrugging off the interest shown in her by Ash, a very sleek synthetic, Zoe wonders why her compatibility test with Cole came up with zero chance for a successful relationship. Those of you lucky enough to have seen the 1962 cult film “Creation of the Humanoids” will have guessed the answer by now. Hell, you’ve probably guessed even if you haven’t seen that film. Despite all the complications, Cole and Zoe take a chance on love. And it’s in these scenes that the movie exhibits the most charm.

I will not trot out Proverbs 26:11 on Doremus, but I really don’t think sci-fi is his calling. Although the flaws in logic and general implausibility of the proceedings have to be laid at Greenberg’s feet as well. It’s clear that the world-building here, such as it is, is less concerned with being convincingly futuristic than it is in reflecting the Way We Live Now. After the couple experience a schism, they each seek solace in drug-fueled liaisons with others, and the rationale for sci-fi allegory is pretty much dispensed with.

The yearning displayed by Cole and Zoe is meant to be profound. But at a certain point the examination of loss in love ceases to show sensitivity and begins to look like emotional immaturity. Throughout “Zoe,” characters talk about how wonderful it would be to have a companion who would never leave you, who could always understand you completely, and more. But let’s get real. Once you’ve acquired a fair amount of life experience, you learn to accept that bad things happen and other people, even ones with the best intentions, can be unreliable, and can hurt you.

In “Zoe,” the characters, all in their 30s at least (except for the robots, I know, but bear with me), still believe that 100-percent glitch-free everlasting love is a reasonable life goal. It’s this component, even more than the poorly realized sci-fi trappings, that finally makes the movie a little insufferable.

If you’re in search of American independent film that displays genuine daring and very little lovesickness, a series this month at the streaming site Filmatique will fit the bill. The site, which generally features international films that have fared well at festivals but not found distribution in the United States, will feature films made in the United States for the first time. The series is called “American Independents” and is organized in partnership with the small film company Factory 25.

The series kicked off July 5 with 2013’s “Sun Don’t Shine,” the feature directing debut of Amy Seimetz. Seimetz has gone on to prominence as an actor (she can be seen in “Alien: Covenant,” the second season of “Stranger Things,” and will appear in the upcoming remake of “Pet Sematary”) and the co-director of the Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience.” (Which is based on the 2009 film in which I appeared as an actor; I have no affiliation with the show but am cordially acquainted with Seimetz and others who work on the series.) Last week came 2016’s “For the Plasma,” which the critic Mike D’Angelo called “the right kind of awful, if such a thing can exist.”

On July 19, the audacious “MA," directed by and starring Celia Rowlson-Hall debuts. Its updated virgin birth story is told entirely in dance, with Rowlson-Hall doing the heaviest lifting, particularly in a motel room scene in which her character splits genders (you have to see it to really get it). The collection is rounded out by “Christmas Again,” starring Kentucker Audley, debuting July 26, and “Two Gates of Sleep,” debuting Aug. 2. Each of the films will stay on Filmatique for a year.

I don’t doubt, if you’re a film enthusiast, that you’ve seen the upsetting 1976 film “Taxi Driver,” perhaps even more than once. So it’s not necessarily big news that the movie is now available to stream via FilmStruck’s Criterion Channel. However, this streaming version of the movie has a special attraction: an audio commentary recorded in 1986 by director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader.

This frank and informative commentary was attached to the Criterion Collection laserdisc of the movie. Once that edition went out of print, and the video licensing rights to the movie went back to Sony, which owns Columbia, the studio that produced the film, the commentary stayed with Criterion. (Subsequent video versions have been issued by Sony, with different supplements.) It’s a great listen, in part because it was recorded only a decade after the movie was made. “It sprang from my head like an animal,” Schrader recalls of the script, which he wrote in less than two weeks. Later, he notes of the collaboration between himself, Scorsese and lead actor Robert De Niro, that it was a case of “three people coming together at a certain point in their lives all needing to say the same thing.” Scorsese talks about his influences and his desire to make the viewer perceive things as he himself perceives them, with a certain speed and intensity.

In the years since the making of the film and the recording of the commentary, Scorsese’s style has evolved and expanded; contrast the very fast 2013 “Wolf of Wall Street” with the contemplative, grieving 2016 “Silence.” This commentary retains considerable value whether you’re a film studies or film production maven, and offers some diverting anecdotes as well.