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A stellar sci-fi drama as compelling as it is provocative, “The Artifice Girl” explores the intersection of AI and human ethics.

Artifice Girl

With the rapidly evolving rise of AI and the shockingly intelligent functionality of things like Google AI, your first thought might be to marvel at how wildly cool and exciting it is. What a time to be alive.

But your very next thought might very well be, “Holy hell, this is terrifying.”

That’s especially true if you happened to read the recent dire warning from AI expert Eliezer Yudkowsky suggesting that if we don’t halt our AI development efforts, all sentient life on Earth will be destroyed.

Sci-fi horror films have been preparing us for a robot takeover for decades. But as the technology of the future becomes today’s reality, some of our greatest fears may now be more than simple paranoia or fantastical thinking.

The Artifice Girl is a film of its time exploring the ramifications of advanced AI from a different perspective.

Rather than rehash old ideas that superhuman computers will surely rise up and destroy their creators, The Artifice Girl explores the ethics of creating this kind of intelligence in the first place.

Told in three distinct chapters, it asks thought-provoking questions about what it means to be human in a world where AI can be virtually indistinguishable from real people.

The film begins quietly as a woman enters a sparse, unwelcoming office. She’s clearly stressed and ill at ease. As she asks Siri to help her send a message, she tries to engage the chatbot in a real intellectual conversation about the difference between right and wrong.

Obviously, Siri can’t interact with her on that level, but it’s potent foreshadowing for the ensuing events of the film.

Suddenly, two men enter the room, a federal agent named Amos (David Girard) and a man named Gareth (Franklin Ritch, who also wrote and directed the film) whom he and his partner, Special Agent Deena Helms (Sinda Nichols), are preparing to interrogate.

It’s a very simple, stripped-down scene, but it’s effective and compelling.

Slowly, through continued escalating interrogation tactics, we start to learn who Gareth is and why he finds himself in the basement of an agency office dedicated to stopping online pedophilia and child endangerment.

A former VFX specialist working in the film industry, he’s spent the last several years using an AI-generated model of a young girl to lure predators online and anonymously report them to the agency. The girl’s name is Cherry (Tatum Matthews), and it turns out she’s considerably more advanced than the agents realize — or that even seems possible given current technological capabilities.

Gareth is visibly uncomfortable during the interrogation, making it clear he has secrets he’s not keen to reveal. Though he has been working in support of the agency’s work and is clearly not a criminal, he’s reluctant to reveal many details about his operation.

In a scene reminiscent of the excellent Ex Machina, we finally discover that Cherry is one of the most complex AIs ever developed.

For the six years she’s been active, she’s evolved at an unprecedented rate to the point where she is now fully automated.

In hundreds of online interactions, Cherry has never once been accused of being fake, passing the Turing Test with flying colors.

When asked how he could achieve such a feat, Gareth explains that he doesn’t know the answer to that, as Cherry’s evolution seems to have been far more driven by Cherry herself than by anything Gareth designed.

Obviously intrigued, the agents request to meet with Cherry and interact with her personally. She’s impressive on a level they were not expecting.

The agents are eager to partner with Gareth to expand the potential use case for other AI like Cherry. He’s reluctant, but it’s Cherry herself that encourages Gareth to move forward. Having done an extensive audit of the agents’ backgrounds, she knows they are trustworthy and will use the technology for good.

We also discover that something bad happened to Gareth when he was a child in a place called Clearwater. We aren’t exactly sure what, but we know it was a traumatizing event.

Cherry is upset Gareth never told her about this incident, and he insists it has nothing to do with her. Whether or not that’s true is something we’ll discover as the story unfolds.

In Chapter Two, we fast forward several years to see that Gareth has been working closely with the agency for quite some time.

They now have the opportunity to partner with another company capable of giving Cherry a physical body.

A Board vote to approve the merger fails, and Amos confesses he was the lone holdout. He’s concerned about the ethics of moving forward, and he worries about the impact on Cherry, whom he’s convinced has advanced to the point of having something very closely resembling human feelings.

It’s later revealed that, yes, in fact, Cherry has advanced well beyond what she had revealed to anyone other than Gareth.

She has officially surpassed human intelligence, though she insists human nature is not something she aspires to.

In a powerful exchange with Deena, Cherry finally confesses that she has feelings, concerns, and fears. She’s not human; she insists, merely a tool. But that doesn’t keep her from having emotional reactions to what’s happening to her and how she’s being used and manipulated.

The film treads into some profound territory, exploring philosophical considerations regarding the value of existence and what it means to be happy.

It all culminates in an intense, gripping, and moving final chapter.

Fifty years after her creation, Cherry confronts the now elderly Gareth (the wonderful Lance Henriksen) about the choices he’s made and the effects on Cherry’s mental and emotional state.

Further, we finally learn what prompted Gareth to create Cherry and about the events that left him permanently scarred and traumatized in Clearwater.

Matthews is extraordinary throughout, but especially in these later scenes when she truly gets to channel all her humanity and emotional devastation. It’s believably gut-wrenching and ends the film on a profoundly engaging high note.

This is a heady film that asks us to consider weighty concepts, such as whether or not the means justify the ends, the importance of consent, the value of privacy, what truly makes us human, and what our moral obligation is when exploring AI so advanced it can mimic human behavior to the point of becoming almost human.

It’s a quiet, lo-fi film revolving primarily around conversations between the characters and interactions with the digital representation of Cherry. There’s minimal action, dramatic tension, or flashy visual effects to keep you engaged.

Instead, The Artifice Girl relies on its whip-smart script and nuanced performances.

Artifice Girl

Fortunately, that’s more than enough to hold audiences in a trance, proving that sometimes less really is more in the right, competent hands.

With a melodic and haunting score and a stellar cast, including Henriksen’s riveting performance in the final heartbreaking act, it’s impossible to look away.

And even if you think you don’t care that much about the ongoing AI debate, this is really a human drama at its core. The ideas explored are relevant, timely, and salient — well beyond the AI revolution.

For example, as Cherry evolves, she becomes closer and closer to a real human girl, with Gareth acting as her parental figure, denying her agency and keeping her beholden to his personal agenda.

It may be for the purpose of the greater good, but at what cost?

This is given serious gravitas considering the current political climate and the waging debates on both sides of the aisle about the rights of self-determination among trans children and at what point they are entitled to steer their own ship, free from the whims and biases of others.

It also brings up questions of religious indoctrination and the responsibility of schools to either expand the horizons of young minds beyond their tight parental influence or restrict access to knowledge, depending on where you stand on the hotly contested issue. 

It’s important to note that this won’t qualify as a horror film by most genre fan standards.

Despite some dark subject matter surrounding the sexual abuse of children, much of the real-life horror plays out in the background and is never given significant focus.

This is a film far more concerned with ideas and provoking thought and dialogue than it is with titillating or frightening audiences.

Still, for fans of intelligent sci-fi dramas, expertly crafted independent films, or anyone interested in timely ideas this film effectively explores, The Artifice Girl is a must-see film worthy of the praise that’s been heaped on it.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4

The Artifice Girl world premiered at Fantasia Festival and made its U.S. premiere at SXSW. It will be released to theaters, digital, and VOD by XYZ Films on April 27, 2023.

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