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The fears and possibilities of Artificial Intelligence have probably lurked in the human brain since human beings started telling stories. Pygmalion and his statue could be seen as members of the AI Universe. So, too, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But A.I. has moved out of science-fiction and into reality, impacting various workplaces in ways which would have seemed far-fetched just a couple of years ago. Franklin Ritch's "The Artifice Girl" is a thought-provoking film that examines the ethics of A.I., moving into even the existential aspects of the concept of artificial intelligence. Any deep inquiry into A.I. is also an inquiry into what it means to be human. Ritch, who wrote, directed, and also appears in the film, keeps the story tightly controlled, so the sole focus is on the mental and emotional challenges facing us when we're dealing with our preconceived notions of reality and authenticity.
This calls to mind "Blade Runner," and its source material, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? If a memory is implanted into an android's brain, a "personal" memory of a childhood that never happened, then isn't that memory a real thing to the android? The android can't tell the difference. It feels real. At a certain point, what is or is not "real" is irrelevant. This is when things get unsettling, and "The Artifice Girl" sits in that very unsettling place.
Broken up into three sections, each of which is about half an hour long, "The Artifice Girl" starts off in a very small, dark, windowless room, where a man named Gareth (Ritch) has been brought in for questioning. The two agents in charge (Sinda Nichols and David Girard) take a very rough approach, terrifying and intimidating Gareth (who is not as naive as he initially appears). The issue is an ongoing project designed to combat the spread of pedophiles and predators operating online, devising technological ways to lure these perverted creeps out into the open. Their newest tactic is Cherry (Tatum Matthews), a digitally created nine-year-old girl who hangs out in chat rooms, going on live chats, logging her persistent viewers, the ones who show up, who message her. She's an effective decoy. She has also developed beyond her original programming, beyond the humans who designed her.
"The Artifice Girl" isn't plot-heavy. Each scene occurs in a single location, making the film extremely claustrophobic. The characters sit or stand, or pace in windowless rooms, grappling with weighty subjects, throwing around references to the Turing Test, game theory, the uncanny valley, and NLP; all while trying to deal with the complications surrounding either the sentience of "Cherry", or their own perception of her sentience. In one scene, Gareth and the two agents argue over whether or not Cherry, the digitized child, can consent to something. She looks so real. The thought of her in all those chat rooms is horrifying. It's almost like the "adults" in charge of Cherry have to keep reminding themselves: "She's not real, she's not real, she's not real."
To speak more about how the story is structured would be to give too much away. Ritch's script is thoughtful and intense, making "The Artifice Girl" a mentally engaging and challenging work. The small cast is excellent, particularly young Matthews, whose dialogue is dauntingly technical and delivered in a monotone. There's a lot of dialogue, and yet "The Artifice Girl" doesn't feel like it's too "talky" (except for the third and final scene, where the long monologues drag). The issues at hand are intellectual and cerebral as much as emotional. There's a great moment where Cherry, the A.I., is being questioned about what she feels about something. Cherry replies, in a flat voice, "Human nature is not something I aspire to." Considering all she has "seen" online, one can't blame her.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms.
Tatum Matthews as Cherry
Sinda Nichols as Deena
Lance Henriksen as Gareth
David Girard as Amos
Franklin Ritch as Gareth