Written and Directed by Franklin Ritch.
Starring Tatum Matthews, Sinda Nichols, Lance Henriksen, David Girard, and Franklin Ritch.
A team of special agents discovers a revolutionary new computer program to bait and trap online predators. After teaming up with the program’s troubled developer, they soon find that the AI is rapidly advancing beyond its original purpose.
With AI Chatbot technology increasing in public awareness and becoming more advanced, writer/director Franklin Ritch’s The Artifice Girl (which actually played at a film festival last summer before some of these topics had ramped up in online discourse) is getting a timely theatrical release. The filmmaker also has a fascinating way into his story, playing into Disney’s real-life technological ambitions that fall into a morally gray area.
Franklin Ritch also takes on the role of Gareth, who is interrogated by Deena and Amos (Sinda Nichols and David Girard) under the impression that he is receiving a grant. He’s actually being shaken down by an organization that works with the FBI, cracking down on Internet chat room pedophiles soliciting various sexual requests. While prying into Gareth’s life, it is revealed that he is a former visual effects artist that once worked for Disney, bringing back to life a character from a dead actor in a Star Wars movie (something that actually happened and has rightfully sparked controversy).
This leads to inquiring about a photo on Gareth’s computer hard drive depicting a nine-year-old girl, leading the investigators to believe they have caught one of the abusers. However, after some further good cop/bad cop pressure and talks of nondisclosure agreements, Gareth confesses to being a notable anonymous user that has been tipping off the same organization about these pedophiles and that the nine-year-old girl he is using as bait does not exist. She is a completely digital creation, constantly fine-tuning the algorithm for her physical movements, speech patterns, and dialogue for believability, using the inherent blurriness of online video chatting to mask aesthetic features of artificial intelligence.
There are also hints that the asexual Gareth has survived sexual abuse, making his unwavering dedication to protecting children more understandable. Dramatic intrigue aside, The Artifice Girl mostly only succeeds as a stagey moral drama while missing opportunities nearly everywhere else. And while it would certainly be icky yet riveting watching the baiting of these pedophiles and their mentally disturbed thought processes at the hands of a young AI girl named Cherry (that passes for a human being to them), and the subsequent turnover to the authorities, it’s probably not the best route to go coaching a child into acting that out, considering that she is played by a real person (Tatum Matthews, terrific in a role that does still demand maturity and emotional complexity).
The Artifice Girl has a white-hot opening stretch as viewers learn about these characters, how technology is evolving (once again, grounding this film’s technology into the technology of actual blockbuster filmmaking is a stroke of brilliance), and what Cherry has been doing and is capable of makes for uniquely compelling drama that blurs the line between reality and science fiction. However, the story soon trails off into the usual questions about artificial intelligence, sentience, developing human emotions, and questions of right and wrong.
Without diving too much into spoilers, there are two separate time jumps. The middle portion of The Artifice Girl is easily the weakest, leaning too far into the previously mentioned tropes, even if the small ensemble is outstanding throughout. Fortunately, Franklin Ritch regains that dramatic footing during the third act, where Lance Henriksen portrays an elderly Gareth, finally confronting his trauma and the moral gray areas behind its creation of Cherry and the seedy work he has essentially forced her to do for roughly 50 years, that is repulsive and hurtful to think about whether she is real or not and no matter how many lives were protected.
The Artifice Girl might not take full advantage of its boldly provocative ideas, but it is ambitious in narrative structure and an uncanny presentation that feels like we could be witnessing a peek into the future. It is uniformly well-acted, with Tatum Matthews turning into an impressively moving, familiar, and specific performance, always deepening the importance of the difficult questions at the story’s center and eliciting emotional responses. The final scenes between her and Lance Henriksen are devastating but hopeful and beautiful without sacrificing tough themes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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