By Thomas M. Puhr.

Franklin Ritch’s feature debut hinges on its ability to make you think you’re watching one kind of movie before becoming another, and then another. If you like cerebral, speculative science-fiction, then you should seek this one out.”

The first lines of dialogue in The Artifice Girl (2022) are spoken to Siri: an appropriate opener for a film concerned with humanity’s ambiguous relationship with technology. Special Agent Deena (Sinda Nichols) is using the app to set up some calendar reminders before she and her partner, Amos (David Girard), begin questioning a suspected child abuser. The ensuing interrogation’s unexpected turns (and shocking revelations) will do no less than change the course of history.

Franklin Ritch’s feature debut hinges on its ability to make you think you’re watching one kind of movie before becoming another, and then another. If you like cerebral, speculative science-fiction, then you should seek this one out. You should also stop reading this review right about now; going into it cold (I unfortunately didn’t, thanks to a trailer that reveals way too much) would be the ideal experience.

As Shane Carruth did with 2004’s Primer – another slice of microbudget, heady sci-fi – Ritch dons many hats: writer, director, editor, and co-star. He plays Gareth, coding genius (he contributed, we learn, to the de-aging technology for the new Star Wars films). Pornographic photographs of a girl named Cherry (Tatum Matthews) have been found on his computer, though he insists he’s done nothing wrong. The child, he explains, is actually a sophisticated AI bot that can interact with online users – in real time, and on video. He created this technology and has been using it to catch pedophiles and human traffickers. Investigators don’t believe him – she looks so real, they figure, there’s no way she’s entirely CGI – that is, until he introduces them to Cherry.

This extended scene – one of three single-location chapters – is the film’s best. Taking place entirely in a windowless interrogation room – with few props beyond a table and chairs – it’s a captivating short in and of itself, as we watch Deena and Amos slowly shift from anger toward the suspected criminal, to guarded curiosity, to shock, and finally to excitement (what if federal agencies could get their hands on this technology?). It’s thrilling to watch this power dynamic play out, to see Gareth walk into the room fearing for his life and out of it wielding a blank government check for expanding the project.

I’ll avoid delving into the next two chapters. Being about a super artificial intelligence, however, The Artifice Girl concerns itself with the types of questions that have lately intensified in public discourse thanks to the release of tools like ChatGPT. Is there a threshold at which simulated emotions become so indistinguishable from “real” ones that there is no difference? If Cherry starts to feel true emotions, is it exploitative to make her interact online with sexual predators? Should we ask a thinking computer for its consent? What if an AI system is smarter than we think and “plays dumb” to avoid scaring us?

Review: The Artifice Girl Follows an AI Creation and Its Maker for Decades,  Making for Top-Notch Sci-Fi Storytelling | Third Coast Review

Gareth, Deena, and Amos grapple with such dilemmas over the years, all while Cherry becomes increasingly autonomous and unpredictable. The three adult leads do fine work, but the film belongs to Tatum Matthews. The young actress captures her character’s progression from glitchy bot to near-perfect simulacrum with subtlety and grace. The performance never goes over-the-top. For the most part, she just acts like a regular kid. But tiny details (notice how she blinks more often in the earlier scenes, as if taking an extra beat to compute and respond) show cracks in the façade, cracks that fill themselves in with startling rapidity.

The Artifice Girl feels derivative on occasion; the basic story, claustrophobic settings, and chapter title cards are reminiscent of 2014’s Ex Machina (there’s even an extended dance sequence). Unlike the Frankenstein-esque creators of Alex Garland’s debut, however, Ritch’s are not motivated by lust and greed as much as they are blinded to unethical behavior by their philanthropic aspirations. Think of it as Ex Machina, but with less of a general disdain for humanity.

Like AI, the film is not without its hiccups. Ritch tends to overexplain, especially near the end. A climactic revelation about why he designed the girl to look the way she does, for example, could have been implied through a single photograph. Instead, we get an extended monologue from Gareth in which he outlines his motives ad nauseam, ala Dr. Richman in Psycho (1960). And the abovementioned dance sequence teeters into the saccharine (though a clever twist punctuates it).

Then again, mawkishness is a very human trait, so perhaps it’s only right to include it in a narrative so preoccupied with matters of the heart. And anyway, Ritch’s earnest approach separates his debut from many of its nihilistic contemporaries. I’m excited to see what other projects he has stored on his hard drive.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

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