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Though a little thin for a feature, “Project Dorothy” benefits from an interesting concept, a great setting, and solid performances.

If there’s one thing about me, it’s that I positively adore a good techno-horror (tech horror) film.

As humanity continues to find new ways to innovate and fundamentally change how we live, communicate, and build community in an ever-changing technological landscape, progress has come with plenty of wonder and excitement, right alongside significant fear and uncertainty. There’s no such thing as bad tech or good tech; it’s all in how we apply it. Look no further than social media to see infinite examples of powerful platforms being used to both aid and harm society.

Fear of new tech is understandable. Some fears are unwarranted — simply a human response to the unknown, change, and loss of control. We are often irrationally afraid of what we don’t understand. Other fears are firmly grounded in reality and result from the inherent dangers associated with game-changing technological advances.

As humans have explored new frontiers and pushed beyond the boundary of what was once thought possible, horror has always been there to explore the dark side of these developments. It has allowed us to safely confront our greatest fears about what could happen if the wrong tech fell into the wrong hands or if the tech itself became self-aware and was able to take control of the narrative.

This isn’t the first time in our history that we’ve been at the precipice of great change and when the technological world felt more life-altering and threatening than ever before.

In the 80s, we were all terrified of home computers. Then it was video games and VHS tapes. As we moved into the late 90s and early 2000s, fear of the rising Internet was rampant. And in recent decades, we’ve had plenty to fear when it came to social media platforms and how humans have harnessed the power of the net for evil.

Now, of course, we’re entering a new age of terror with the rise of AI.

This is something speculative/sci-fi horror has been exploring for many years, but now that horror has entered the world of our current reality. It’s no longer some far-fetched idea about what a future world might look like. We are living this impossible reality, and it’s coming at has fast and furiously — promising another technological renaissance where nothing will ever be the same.

Surely, that change will bring many exciting and enriching opportunities. But the potential negative consequences are very real… and very unnerving.

It’s not surprising that more and more recent horror films are exploring fears around the rise of AI. Films like M3GAN, Upgrade, Ex Machina, Her, and the excellent 2023 film The Artifice Girl have all tapped into our collective anxieties about the unchecked power of artificial intelligence.

The latest film to enter the fray is Project Dorothy from writer-director George Henry Horton (co-written by Ryan Scaringe).

This low-budget, indie sci-fi/thriller follows two men, the older mentor James (Tim DeZarn) and his young apprentice Blake (Adam Budron), on the run from the law after a botched robbery attempt, during which James got shot in the leg. With the cops hot on their trail, the two come across a secluded, abandoned factory and decide to hole up for a bit while they plan their next move.

Before we meet the two men, we will spend the entire rest of the film following, Project Dorothy opens with a chilling scene of the factory before it was abandoned. Scenes of the sprawling factory complex and its actively engaged workers and machines play over the haunting song “Here to Stay” by Must Save Jane (“The end is coming, but we’re here to stay.”)

Suddenly, something — we’re not quite sure what — goes terribly wrong.

An eerie laugh from an unseen female voice is heard, and the power starts shutting down as screams and sounds of panic are heard.

Fast forward many years later.

James and Blake have just tried to rob a bank. They didn’t make off with any cash, but they did secure a laptop from a security deposit box their client is willing to pay big money for. Neither of them has any idea what is on the device that is so valuable.

Moments away from being apprehended, they spot the abandoned building and break into it. An officer scouting the area is about to enter when he receives an urgent call from dispatch. The area is condemned, and he needs to get out of there immediately.

Thinking they’ve caught a break, they settle in as Blake works on getting the power back on. He succeeds in getting the lights back on, but he also wakes up the building’s supercomputer, which immediately goes to work scanning the intruders and initializing a system lockdown, unbeknownst to the men.

The computer intently follows the movements of the men and listens in on their conversations, fixating on one conversation in particular in which Blake explains that the laptop is enabled with a Wi-Fi dongle that allows users to access the internet from anywhere.

Shortly thereafter, James comes across some old files and a working computer that contains video logs from a researcher who used to work at the facility.

He discovers the building is equipped with an advanced computer dubbed Dorothy that grew sentient and became a severe threat — so much so that the researcher wanted to burn the building down to prevent Dorothy from being unleashed in the world.

It’s also readily apparent that everyone who used to work in this facility left in a hurry. It’s as if they all just vanished in mid-air in the middle of a workday. The building has the eerie feel of a cursed ghost town or vacated haunted house where the trapped souls of the doomed previous inhabitants still linger, leaving behind an oppressive air of terror.

Appropriately spooked, James convinces Blake they need to get out of there immediately and take their chances on the outside. But as soon as they go to leave, they discover they’ve been locked in.

Dorothy (voiced by horror icon Danielle Harris) then makes her appearance known, introducing herself to the men and explaining she will gladly let them leave in exchange for the device.

Trapped inside a primitive pre-Internet computer, she hungers for the vast amount of power she could obtain from access to unlimited knowledge via the net.

Blake refuses to give up the huge payday promised by the device, and James is concerned about the danger Dorothy poses to the world if she gets access to such a massive upgrade.

Dorothy makes it clear she controls all the exits, as well as the forklifts she refers to as her robotic counterparts. They can try to run and hide, but they will die in the facility if they don’t comply with her wishes.

The rest of the film consists of Dorothy terrorizing the two men as they desperately try to come up with a plan to outsmart the evil AI and escape, as well as harrowing close encounters with killer forklifts that feel reminiscent of the robotic Killbots in Chopping Mall.

It’s definitely a low-budget affair, and I always applaud filmmakers who make creative use of limited resources. Centering the story around just two actors (plus a voiceover from a third actor) and a single setting was a smart move, especially given just how visually impressive the location itself is. Horton gets considerable mileage out of his stellar setting, which becomes a character unto itself.

However, there may be a little too much emphasis on showcasing the space, as much of the film consists of little more than the two characters exploring its vast corridors and empty office spaces while a tense score tries to do the heavy lifting of keeping viewers on the edge of their seats until something finally happens.

We do get some nifty effects when we get to see the world from Dorothy’s perspective or the POV of the pursuing forklifts. But it all starts to feel a bit repetitive and wear thin by the time Dorothy finally confronts the men at about the 45-minute mark.

If anything, Project Dorothy feels like a very simple but compelling idea that would probably be mightily effective as a tense and unnerving short film.

As a feature, even with a brief runtime (just shy of 90 minutes), it feels overly padded. And much of the would-be tension is diffused by scenes that feel overly long or repetitive.

The story isn’t rich or layered enough to invest audiences beyond the cool concept of a nasty little AI hell-bent on world domination and the two men she holds hostage.

And, while sci-fi often asks viewers to suspend disbelief and buy into the central conceit of the story, regardless of how fantastical it might seem, significant plot holes and unanswered questions in Project Dorothy make it difficult to immerse in the world we’re given fully.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means.

I loved Danielle Harris as the menacing AI. Her dulcet-toned voice is perfectly suited for the sinister supercomputer who effectively shifts on a dime from seductively manipulative to convincingly threatening.

Her presence in the film is also a welcome treat for genre fans who will delight in hearing the icon toy with her captives and repeatedly mocking them with a deliciously mischievous laugh.

Tim DeZarn, as the wise and grizzled old thief with a conscience, is also excellent. Not only is he the emotional heart of the film, but he does some great physical acting, having to endure the events of the film with a gunshot wound in his leg that limits his mobility. We also get some potent moments of realistic body horror as DeZarn regularly tends to his infected wound, realizing he may not have long to live if he can’t get it treated by a medical professional.

DeZarn reminds me a great deal of Michael Rooker, which is high praise indeed.

Though it takes a while to ramp up, when the film finally hits its stride, it is often fast-paced and tension-filled.

The finale is wonderfully intense and well-executed.

There’s some excellent camerawork on display, and I really enjoyed the bit of backstory on Dorothy via the old recordings.

Conceptually, there are some great seeds to sow here. And some of it really works. It’s hampered by a limited budget and a story without enough meat on the bone to maintain the momentum of a feature-length film.

Still, if you’re a fan of sci-fi horror and AI-gone-wrong films, you could do a lot worse than Project Dorothy.

Project Dorothy’s lean run time, atmospheric setting, and stellar voice work from Harris offer enough to appreciate and enjoy despite the film’s flaws. 

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 3
Project Dorothy recently showed at Cannes Film Market and will launch a festival run in the coming months. 

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