The Artifice Girl (2022) Review
The press release and IMDB page for The Artifice Girl describe it like this “ A team of special agents discovers a revolutionary new computer program to bait and trap online predators. After teaming up with the program’s troubled developer, they soon find that the AI is rapidly advancing beyond its original purpose.” It’s also tagged “Mystery” “Sci-Fi” and “Thriller”. Sounds like a potentially exciting crime film with some topical AI elements, right? Not exactly.
Deena (Sinda Nichols, That Abandoned Place, Bubblegum Crisis) is asking Siri the difference between right and wrong. Unsurprisingly her virtual assistant doesn’t have an answer. Her partner Amos (David Girard, Spend, Alice) arrives with Gareth, played by The Artifice Girl’s writer/director Franklin Ritch. It seems the two agents want to ask him some questions about some pictures found on his computer.
That’s when he drops a bombshell on them. Cherry (Tatum Matthews, A Waltons Thanksgiving, The Gift) the girl in the pictures isn’t a girl at all. She’s an advanced AI that he’s been using to hunt down online predators. And her capabilities are growing faster than even he expected.
Rather than go in the direction one would expect, The Artifice Girl stays in the room and becomes a debate on the ethics of using AIs, whether or not they have any kind of autonomy, and where the definition of a sentient being begins. That discussion is spread over what could easily be three acts of a stage play, each set several years after the one before and reflecting the way both Cherry and the situation have evolved.
And that’s where the problem comes in because while The Artifice Girl isn’t the film advertised, it is a solid, thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction. But that’s not what most of its audience will be expecting, and many of them are not going to be happy to get a dialogue-heavy, idea-driven film instead of the cyberthriller about AIs hunting pedophiles they were expecting.
For those that are looking for a film like this, The Artifice Girl has a lot to offer. The first discussion sets the film’s premise and gives us our first look at Cherry. Tatum Matthews does an impressive job playing an AI playing a nine-year-old girl and the resulting chat between Cherry and Deena is both creepy and convincing. Especially when Cherry says she was the one who leaked the pictures Gareth was brought in for.
The second act takes place in another room several years later. Cherry’s abilities have evolved dramatically but she still appears as a nine-year-old. Her human handlers have aged. And as their mission has grown more complex they’re put in a position to use Cherry for something that, while for the good of their mission, is not what she was designed to do.
Does she have feelings about the issue? If she does do, or should they matter? Should her consent be sought, or is that immaterial whether or not she has feelings and sentience?
This scene is also as close as The Artifice Girl comes to dealing with another major ethical question the script raises. The shadowy, alleged humanitarian organization they work for seems to have an impressive amount of authority and freedom to use it. How does this kind of surveillance and police power square with our freedoms? I know the film’s focus is on the evolution of Cherry and her abilities, but their use as surveillance tools will be a real issue once AIs become more powerful and complex.
Twenty-five years later, with Gareth now confined to a wheelchair and played by Lance Henriksen (Eminence Hill, West of Hell), the story reaches its conclusion. Cherry now has an artificial body and can move around the house. The two of them confront each other over a game of chess and Gareth has to face, and reveal, demons of his own.
The Artifice Girl won Best International Feature at last year’s Fantasia Film Festival and it’s easy to see why. Despite a presentation that could have been dry and academic rather than entertaining, the film stays interesting and doesn’t drag. The dialogue stays crisp and entertaining and also benefits from strong performances by the four leads. The final act, with just Henriksen and Matthews going one-on-one is surprisingly strong with the newcomer holding her own against one of the genre’s icons.
If you ignore the publicity and go in knowing what you’re about to see, The Artifice Girl should be a very rewarding watch. It’s just too bad the distributor didn’t have the faith in it to sell it as what it is.