“Hey Siri, how do you know if you’re doing the right thing?”
Writer-director Franklin Ritch’s The Artifice Girl announces its intentions straight away with its first line of dialogue. Immediately, we understand this is going to be a movie that deals with the unique ethical challenges that come with 21st-century technology, and likely one that asks questions that – much as if you asked that of Siri – will give no easy answer.
The Artifice Girl’s core conceit is left opaque in festival programme blurbs, but it becomes clear as soon as main character Garreth (Ritch) is introduced as an effects artist specialising in synthetic humans (in an amusing aside clearly aimed at Rogue One and other recent Star Wars dodginess), and the issue of catfishing child predators is brought up in conjunction with that. Garreth, brought in for questioning by a pair of special agents, has developed an advanced CGI simulacrum of a ten-year-old girl, “Cherry,” with the sole purpose of luring in online pedophiles and delivering them to the authorities – and the authorities want in on its development. That on its own spawns its own ethical dilemmas, but the story quickly takes turns that push it further into the realm of science fiction – and into what I’ll scientifically refer to as “the squick zone”.
Following in the footsteps of the underrated Steve Jobs, The Artifice Girl plays out over just three scenes of twenty to forty minutes each, separated in time by decades. Unlike that hugely-budgeted film, this one takes place mostly in a single dingy room with a handful of characters. As a result, it plays out much like a stage production – I’d love to see or even direct such a thing – with each scene bearing its own shape and structure, tension and release, setup and payoff. Though Ritch does his damnedest to light, shoot, and edit his film with a variety of cinematic techniques to enhance the storytelling, ultimately its success or failure lies in the script and the performances.
Acting in a film like this – one where the script mostly consists of ethical debates – is a challenge. On the page, the characters read as vehicles for their approaches to the film’s issues. Yet, Ritch and his cast manage to imbue their roles with just enough touches of character to elevate them above the mouthpieces they could easily have been. Ritch, leading his own movie, delivers just the right single-minded intensity for his intelligent, vengeful character, while supports Sinda Nichols and David Girard pepper their own monologues with tiny quirks to remind us that they, too, are human. Special mention must be made of young actress Tatum Matthews, who as Cherry tackles one of the most complex and difficult characters in recent memory. Not only must she play a character forced into the middle of this ethical dilemma; she has to do so in a way that believably straddles the line between present-day speech-synthesis tech, futuristic AI, and actual humanity. Coupled with what I suspect is some deft dialogue editing behind the scenes, it’s a remarkable performance.
Despite its tendency towards illustrating everything via dialogue, The Artifice Girl still manages to be truly disconcerting in a surprisingly visceral way. Indeed, the lack of detail about Cherry’s targets and what she does to catch them means the audience is left to imagine the horror of such a scenario, and her status as a digital construct doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. Though the film’s middle act leans into debates that have already been thoroughly explored in sci-fi, the mere fact of its subject material puts a new spin on some old ideas – especially as the more personal side of the story emerges later on. Different audiences will react in vastly different ways to this film, and isn’t that a mark of a work that’s pushing interesting buttons?
The Artifice Girl is a textbook case of a small movie with big ideas – the kind of movie I love to see, and the kind of movie I want to eventually make. In its 80-odd minutes, it touches on policing overreach, vigilantism, revenge, privacy violations, consent, sentience, free will, personal purpose, work/life balance, the cycle of abuse, inherited trauma, the relative safety of online and offline worlds, the right to choose, and straight-up the future of humanity. A horrifying spiritual sequel to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Andrew Niccol’s S1m0ne, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Measure Of A Man”, it’s an exceptionally clever film asking questions we haven’t had to consider yet – but at some point, likely will. If you thought the ethics of what’s being researched at Boston Dynamics and ILM were unsettling before, wait until The Artifice Girl creeps into your brain.