SXSW 2023 The Artifice Girl Review- A.I. Thinker Wonders What Is Life?
The Artifice Girl is a cinematic three-act film about life, parenting, trauma, and what it means to be human.
There’s a lot of talking in the thoughtful sci-fi drama. Almost exclusively a four-person film, it feels like a play, a well-acted play but nonetheless it is devoid of many of the dynamics of movies today. Particularly genre films. None of that is a criticism so much as a warning that The Artifice Girl won’t be for everyone but for those who enjoy expository-heavy and oddly hopeful films about the future it is good. Shown as part of the SXSW lineup of films it is a simple story about a deceptively complex moral issue. What is life and does it deserve respect?
The Artifice Girl from writer-director Franklin Ritch is not the kind of movie that will create a ton of buzz. It isn’t a loud showy affair with slick over-the-top visuals and overtly malicious characters. In fact, of the main characters none are exclusively good or bad. Instead, they are just like all of us, messy, flawed, and filled with shades of gray.
It’s a quiet sci-fi movie for those more concerned with the should we than the can we. Unlike big action sci-fi movies like Adam Driver’s newest 65, The Artifice Girl embraces the moral issues inherent to progress. Is it always a good thing? What are our responsibilities to each other and our inventions?
With very few sets everything rests on the script and the performers to deliver the message. Where the first half could have benefited from some editing, the second is far more interesting. Ritchie’s script is more tell than show which isn’t always a mistake, but when everything is discussed to death, it can sometimes leave little space for self-reflection. It’s like watching a parent desperately trying to convey everything they need their child to understand while they have their attention. Everything feels a bit too much like a download than a rumination.
Split into three distinct acts the film focuses exclusively on fixed points in time. Like life itself, it is distinguished by infancy, adulthood, and death. For some those timelines are longer than others. The first act sticks to the roots of technobabble, and noir-lite crime speak. Nothing feels as urgent as saving the people that this new AI claims to. Agents Deena(Sinda Nichols) and Amos(David Girard) bristle with rage when they question the tech wizard Garreth(Ritch), who turns out to be a vigilante of sorts. The tightly blocked first scene feels claustrophobic. The competent opener sets the stage giving us something familiar and intriguing. This is what the future could be about. People, unfortunately, don’t change very often, but technology can. AI could bridge the gap between our positive and negative qualities.
The second act tells us about the conflict between the feelers and the thinkers of the project. In a dialogue-heavy segment that could have spent more time showing us what Cherry the AI was going through daily, it spent more time discussing her as a pet. Tatum Matthews(Cherry) is given more screen time but suffers from the confines of her boxed existence. She is stilted and stiff trying to convey a wealth of emotions. The group talks about her as something to be cared about but ultimately ruled over. This segment leaves Cherry out of the conversation too much, opting for a focus on the decision to be made as opposed to the rationale behind each choice.
It’s a problem that undercuts some of the better points of the film. It sticks with us longer when the viewer is engaged and activated to feel something rather than listen to something. So, for example, show us Cherry’s pain and the group’s indecision as a result of it. It would have been more meaningful to hear from her instead of about her.
The third act is more successful when superb character actor and genre mainstay Lance Henrickson shows up. After that, the entire movie takes on new meaning and becomes more emotional. This is ultimately a film about what it means to be a parent. All the hopes, dreams, fears, and guilt we carry around with us are put on full display. What does it mean to be a good parent? Are we responsible for past trauma influencing how we treat our children now? Are we responsible for everything living, artificial or not?
It’s heady stuff that requires some patience that is happily rewarded if you stick around. These are relatable people with similar perspectives on life but different views on right and wrong. Their relationship with each other and the artificial intelligence they have lovingly nurtured, even if they don’t realize it until the end is the true heart of this film. The bad cosplay costuming of Cherry leaves something to be desired giving away the film’s low budget, but that can be largely ignored in favor of the feeling.
The Artifice Girl at its heart is a sweet idea about good people who sometimes make bad choices. There are no huge swings taken and too much dialogue, but there is something kindhearted about the sci-fi drama that speaks to a world in chaos and those among us who want to make it better even if they don’t always know the right way to do that. As a sentimentalist and a parent, I related to the final act and forgave some of the obvious shortcomings. It isn’t perfect, and as an artifice, it fails miserably, but as a simple glimpse inside a flawed group of humans and their AI offspring, it is relatable.
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As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.