[SXSW 2023 Review] 'The Artifice Girl' is an Absorbing Descent into the Uncanny Valley
You won’t find me screaming for joy over advancements in AI. You might find me screaming in horror, though. A lot of you probably feel the same. But in writer/director Franklin Ritch’s intriguing sci-fi feature, The Artifice Girl, the filmmaker pulls the viewer deep into the uncanny valley for an exploration of what it means to be human…and whether or not artificial intelligence is something to be afraid of.
Artifice Girl follows internet vigilante, Gareth (Ritch), facing interrogation by two ICWL agents who spend their days putting away pedophiles. They want to know Gareth’s relationship to a young girl on the internet named Cherry (Tatum Matthews). But when Gareth reveals Cherry is an ultra-realistic AI program he created to ensnare predators, it sets the three on an introspective journey of questioning their own humanity.
Set (mostly) in a single room and employing minimalist techniques, Artifice Girl won’t be for everyone. How much you enjoy the film depends on your appreciation of dialogue-driven narratives. Ritch plops us into a softly lit room with Gareth, Agent Deena (Sinda Nichols) and Agent Amos (David Girard), and that’s where we stay for the majority of the runtime as the characters interact with Cherry and pose philosophical questions regarding topics that range from the use of AI, its humanity and our own existence. The filmmaker’s straightforward direction tends to plant the camera on the actors and let them run. You won’t find much in the way of stimulating cinematography, sound design or music to emphasize emotions. It’s as if Ritch doesn’t want any distractions from the performances, which may leave some with the question of whether or not the film would make a better stage-play than a cinematic experience.
Artifice Girl lays it all on the shoulders of the performers. That’s always a risky bet, but it pays off here with a cast that’s up for the task. Gripping performances from each of the actors pull us into this world so that we feel as if we’re sitting right there in the room with them. Tatum Matthews in particular steals the show as the title Artifice Girl, even holding her own with the legendary Lance Henriksen during a later scene. Of course, they’re assisted by the script’s compelling dialogue which is at once tense, emotional, and deeply fascinating. Ritch’s film isn’t for those who want something to “turn their brain off” to, but rather a philosophical discussion that engages the audience by asking us directly what it means to have feelings. Does feeling make us human? Can artificial intelligence truly feel? If so, does it deserve rights?
Through no fault of the filmmakers, Artifice Girl may in some ways seem as if it is arriving one year too late. This is already happening. In just the last few weeks, conversational AI has been introduced. Stories of people forming fake relationships with it out of curiosity have sprouted up everywhere. What is shocking to Deena and Amos may have had the same effect on the audience less than a year ago, but seems like old news now. Yet while the premise may be less science fiction and more reality these days, what keeps the film interesting are the ways in which Ritch approaches the subject. Artifice Girl isn’t predicting the future; It’s offering comprehension of the now.
Everything from Terminator to Blade Runner to I Robot tends to look at AI through a sinister lens. Either artificial intelligence will have no feeling and want to destroy us…or have feeling and want to destroy us. But Artifice Girl takes the less traveled and perhaps controversial path of asking whether or not AI is inherently a “bad” thing, or if its impact on our society depends entirely on how we choose to develop it. Ritch’s film isn’t a hopeless one. Uncomfortable, yes. Dark? A bit. But devoid of optimism it is not. Artifice Girl might be the least pessimistic narrative around AI that I’ve seen to date.
An intelligent film with a thoughtful interpretation of AI, Artifice Girl reaches into the soul of the viewer. It probably won’t change minds—you either embrace AI or think it’s the Devil—but for those willing to have their views challenged, Ritch’s film is an absorbing ninety-minutes that’ll have you sitting back and contemplating the future of AI…and the human race as a whole.
By Matt Konopka
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