Written and directed by Franklin Ritch, who also plays two-thirds of a key role (ceding it to veteran Lance Henriksen in a fifty-years-later third act), The Artifice Girl is constructed very much like a play – three distinct acts/scenes, all taking place on single indoor locations, and character conflict/resolution emerging through long, interrogative dialogues … with an artfully concealed trap or surprise in each sequence. Inevitably, this requires tact from reviewers since what could be called spoilers for the first act become the premises of the second … and a twist in that sets up the third. You might want to skip this review and trust you’ll want to see the film, which has excellent performances and a lot of chewy ideas, then come back for the discussion.
In Act One, computer animator Gareth (Ritch), whose CV includes making the digital ghost of Alec Guinness make one more Star Wars show, comes to the basement room of a concrete government building in Florida to be interviewed by Amos (David Girard) and Deena (Sinda Nichols), who ostensibly want to offer him a grant for further development work … and in the end are pretty much intent on doing that, though the prospect is a come-on which seems to have netted a predator. We’re probably ahead of these agents in working out why they haven’t been able to find and rescue 11-year-old Cherry (Tatum Matthews), a lure Gareth – the survivor of horrible childhood abuse – has been using to ensnare online pedophiles he has been turning over to the authorities. Cherry isn’t real, but a computer simulation and the Task Force Deena and Amos work for agree to enlist her in a more extensive campaign against ‘horrible people’.
Act Two takes place after the program has been running for some time, and hinges on qualms Amos has start to have about the ethics of creating an artificial intelligence then requiring her to spend her entire life interacting with the worst people imaginable. There’s also a shift in the relationship between Cherry and her creator, which has similarly been developing out of oversight and comes into sharper focus in Act Three, which is also an epilogue, as Cherry, downloaded into a robot body, visits the now wheelchair-bound and aged Gareth to talk over their lifetime of experiences and what greater potentials Cherry might have after he – and maybe all of us – are gone. It abjures much tech – Matthews, who is startling, gives the impression of being GC just by acting – and trims almost all extraneous fat from the drama. Even a tiny prologue with Deena interacting with her automated assistant, who is floored by moral questions, is a thematic seed that grows throughout the movie. Henriksen is so busy and familiar a presence that it’s sometimes easy to forget what a powerhouse performer he is, and the interface between him and newcomer Matthews in the long last scene is electric.
Obviously, these ideas have been around since Frankenstein and Pinocchio, and this form of machine mind SF has been evolving from AI Artificial Intelligence through a raft of films and TV shows – S1m0ne, Ex Machina, Humans, After Yang. The Artifice Girl is a very impressive ‘small’ film to add to this filmography.