Franklin Ritch’s intriguing debut feature is intelligent, non-action-oriented sci-fi about the ethics of fast-developing technology.
Artificial Intelligence has been increasingly in the news of late, with observers worried that it will soon become difficult for teachers to tell if students actually completed a project themselves (or a program did it for them), for anyone to recognize whether a supposed breaking evidential video is in fact a deepfake, and so forth. “The Artifice Girl,” however, frames the problems raised by ever-growing technological sophistication in a familiar narrative framework: that of the machine intelligence that begins to surpass its human “masters.”
Unlike portrayals from “2001” to “Ex Machina” and beyond, however, Franklin Ritch’s debut feature does not treat that dynamic in thriller terms, as a hostile takeover. Instead, this smaller-scaled speculative fiction is more concerned with ethics, as pondered in a series of dialogue sequences that aren’t static but might also have worked on stage, and require nothing in the way of FX. The results may not be what fantasy fans in need of action and spectacle are looking for. But Ritch’s film, which won the Best International Feature Audience Award at Fantasia last year, is engaging food for thought for viewers willing to let ideas rather than visuals fire up their futuristic imagination. XYZ Films is releasing it April 27 to limited U.S. theaters, as well as on-demand and digital platforms.
Unfolding in three chaptered sections, Ritch’s script begins with its longest setpiece. “Special agents” Deena (Sinda Nichols) and Amos (David Girard) have managed to get reluctant, resentful Gareth (played by the writer-director himself) to a drab basement room at the HQ for an international humanitarian organization. The interview quickly turns into an interrogation, as Gareth resists discussing the software he’s been working on since leaving a career advancing 3D modeling for movies. (He claims credit for once bringing back to “life” a long-dead Alec Guinness for a “Star Wars” entry.) They suggest he’s a child predator, online and perhaps IRL. He certainly acts like a stereotypical one, all shifty eyes and antisocial behaviors.
But the truth eventually comes out, once he’s sworn his skeptical hosts to secrecy. Gareth is, in fact, a survivor of child abuse himself (something we get more detail about much later), and after receiving an inheritance that freed him financially, decided to turn his programming genius towards catching predators. To that end, he’s created a next-level AI entity, a “highly detailed digital model” he’s dubbed Cherry, who looks and sounds like an 11-year-old blonde American girl (Tatum Matthews). “Puppeteered” by him, “she” is bait that attracts pederasts worldwide, generating evidence he then anonymously turned over to the authorities. But the persona is so amazingly lifelike, the agents have great difficulty believing that Gareth isn’t using an actual, flesh-and-bone child as an entrapment lure.
Bullish “bad cop” Deena (whose family also has personal experience with molestation) and the more cautious, empathetic Amos want to appropriate this technology for wider use. Gareth is initially opposed, but he acquiesces and becomes part of their team. He’s largely convinced by Cherry herself, who is already perhaps a more advanced, level-headed strategist than her minders can ever be. And she is still evolving.
The other two sections — one taking place in another institutional interior, the last in a private home —take place several years, then decades, later. Mortality for the human employees factors in, as does interpersonal conflict, particularly over Amos’ ethical qualms regarding Cherry’s ever-more-realistic applications. But the main focus gradually shifts towards Cherry her/itself, as newfound abilities to enter the physical world, to be creative rather than simply functional, and to have non-mimicked feelings blur troublesome lines. “I can’t even tell I’m not human anymore,” she says at one late point: a sentiment more sad than boastful. She was happier when just a “tool.” Indeed, happiness was just an abstraction then.
All these discussions around technology, morality and consent might easily have grown arid. But Ritch maintains enough tension via filmmaking craft, and his cast via intensity of psychological dynamics, that this very talky, nearly action-free drama never grows ponderous. On the other hand, neither does it pack a lot of emotional punch: The actors don’t fully transcend their characters’ function as position-point articulators, with Lance Henriksen coming closest as one aged protagonist in the final section. The impressive young Matthews doesn’t fully convince in Cherry’s transition from high-end automaton to independent thinker. But given the role’s conceptual arc, any performer would have difficulty suspending our disbelief throughout.
Helping reduce a sense of claustrophobia in what amounts to three long one-room scenes is the spaciousness of Britt McTammany’s widescreen cinematography, while primarily verbal content is lent sufficient urgency and variety by Ritch as editor. Design elements make a more discreet contribution, including Alex Cuervo’s original score.