Ambitious sci-fi exploring the evolving role of artificial intelligence in the modern world

The Artifice Girl

Source: Fantasia International Film Festival

‘The Artifice Girl’

Dir/scr: Franklin Ritch. US. 2022. 94mins

The ethical dilemmas surrounding the applications of artificial intelligence are given a vigorous work-out in writer/director Franklin Ritch’s smart, dialogue-heavy sci-fi thriller which explores qualms about the use of increasingly sophisticated digital technologies to attract and potentially trap online child predators. The subject matter is intriguing enough to overcome a slightly stagy approach, suggesting  the likelihood of further festival screenings and perhaps some theatrical interest after its Fantasia debut.

Compelling as it explores the appliance of science and the price of good intentions

The Artifice Girl begins as weary special agent Deena Helms (Sinda Nichols) asks Siri the impossible question “How do you know if you’re doing the right thing?” It is a quandary that echoes down the decades as she confronts the opportunities and drawbacks that cutting edge technology bring to her job.

The rest of the film is split into three section, starting with an interrogation in which Helms and fellow agent Amos McCullough (David Girard) confront mysterious tech geek Gareth (Franklin Ritch). The single pool of light in a windowless room creates the shadowy feel of film noir or a police procedural. Indeed, a good deal of The Artifice Girl is just three characters in one room confronting each other over what they know, fear, suspect and might be willing to share. It makes for an intense, theatrical experience but there is sufficient tension in the dynamic between the three characters to successfully sustain interest. Ritch has a fondness for verbosity, advancing and sustaining the story through reams of conversation, monologues and argument.

The wary, defensive Gareth is initially presented as a lone wolf. A special-effects technician for the film industry, he is skilled at 3D renderings of “unavailable”  actors. Aggressive questioning from Helms paints him as a man without friends, haunting the internet under assumed identities. His hard drive includes images of a young girl called Cherry (Tatum Matthews). Each exchange seems to support the conclusion that he is a paedophile; the reality of what he has been doing is a surprise twist in the narrative that sets him up as a natural ally in the fight to make the world safer  for children. His work presents a “technological solution to a technological problem.”

The story then continues in a second section, set fifteen years later, with the trio once again in a single room facing some home truths about the morality of what they have done and their concerns about what comes next. A closing section brings a welcome change to an increasingly oppressive setting, with Lance Henriksen playing an elderly, wheelchair bound Gareth as he pays a visit to Cherry in search of some kind of absolution.

Fear of the future and the rise of machines has inspired a wide span of influential, often blockbuster science-fiction cinema; The Artifice Girl is a modest, cerebral addition to the genre. Ritch doesn’t quite hit Aaron Sorkin-esque heights with his screenplay and the actors doesn’t always sell some of the more melodramatic demands placed upon them. Ritch himself is very believable as the emotionally damaged, righteous Gareth and Lance Henriksen brings his customary authority to the older Gareth.  Matthews achieves the difficult task of making Cherry a bright, engaging youngste,r but also unsettlingly logical and reasonable in the manner of Star Trek’s Mr Spock.

Ritch’s skill lies in the way he uses a cleverly plotted tale and back story to address some pressing questions. What are the rights and wrongs of how A.I. can be used? Could it ever develop emotions? Would it some day have the capacity to grant or withhold consent? What happens when it survives all the humans who first devised it, or even the human race itself? Frailties, guilt and hidden longings keep the story compelling as it explores the appliance of science and the price of good intentions.

Production companies: Paper Street Pictures, Blood Oath, Last Resort Ideas

Contact: Paper Street Pictures

Producers: Ashleigh Snead, Aaron B. Koontz

Cinematography: Britt McTammany

Editing: Franklin Ritch

Music: Alex Cuervo

Main cast: Tatum Matthews, Sinda Nichols, David Girard, Lance Henriksen