A rich sci-fi focused on the ethics of AI feels timely and relevant but also manages to centre an impactful, more individual narrative.
Synopsis: When an internet vigilante develops a revolutionary new computer program to combat online predators, its rapid advancement leads to serious questions of autonomy, oppression, and what it really means to be human.
Franklin Ritch introduces the characters in his film in the tensest situation imaginable, with Gareth (played by Ritch) being interrogated by Deena (Sinda Nichols) and Amos (David Girard) about images on his computer. As the pair continue to question him, he reveals a shocking truth about the alleged child abuse imagery: the girl is not real, but an AI construction that Gareth has built to trap predators. Cherry (Tatum Matthews) has assisted Gareth in gathering evidence against would-be abusers, but growing disillusionment with the police response has led to him furthering the design and working more independently. Already, there is a sense that Cherry’s development as being a surprise even to him, describing her evolution as “pushing a wheel down a hill”. That first act sets the scene for the ethical questions that frame the film as the second and third chapters use jumps in time to explore the fallout from those early decisions.
It would be easy to look at the film’s initial concept and write it off as a provocative thought experiment, but this is a far more sedate and thoughtful film than that suggests. Outside of establishing the situation, it isn’t interested in probing that vigilantism, but shifts focus to the escalating discomfort around the technology. Throughout, there is an emphasis on what humans bring to technology with discussions of consent and autonomy made all the more uncomfortable by the presence of Cherry and the way she is spoken of and to. This shifts it from potentially exploitative subject matter into a more explorative space, although, there are still references to child abuse that people may wish to avoid.
As each chapter mostly sees two or more characters confined to one room, it could easily lose a sense of cinematic spectacle. Ritch meets this challenge with a roaming camera and swift cuts, adding an energy, enforcing the tension and tapping into those heightened emotions. In quieter moments where the camera is allowed to rest on a character, it does so almost too closely, still adding that tension while also allowing the performer to take centre stage. All of this makes moments where the camera is allowed to step back and indulge in open space and more fluid, less tense movement all the more impactful.
The dialogue-heavy nature places a huge amount of pressure on the performers – again, a challenge they are able to meet. Tatum Matthews is extraordinary as Cherry, having to perform as an AI functioning as a real girl, peppering uncanny moments and movements within a performance that shifts considerably in each section. To hold her own against the ever-reliable Lance Henriksen is so impressive and their interactions lend the film a real power. David Girard’s quieter processing of the initial situation too, is memorable, his pause providing a reprieve from the otherwise wordy scenes. As a viewer, that pause with him allows you the space to pause too, collecting your own thoughts on the ethics under discussion.
This is far from an action-packed thriller – it is more insidious, more memorable than that. Clever writing neatly weaves references from the first act into the third without needing to signpost it. This is a film that makes you want to lean into the discussion, to consider your own position and that of human interaction with technology. However, the dedicated performances also allow you to become absorbed in the more personal story within that much meatier discussion.
The Artifice Girl is weighty, engrossing work, showcasing exactly what sci-fi has to offer in terms of thinking about the world around us.
4 out of 5 stars
The Artifice Girl will screen at Glasgow Film Festival 2023 on March 6th and 7th. You can find out more about the screenings at the Glasgow Film Festival webpage.