Review: The Artifice Girl Follows an AI Creation and Its Maker for Decades, Making for Top-Notch Sci-Fi Storytelling

With his second film as writer/director, Franklin Ritch (who also edited the film and co-stars) has created a science fiction morality play in The Artifice Girl that ranks up there with some of the great "Can We?" vs. "Should We?" scientific debates ever conceived about artificial intelligence. In the piece, Ritch plays Gareth, a special effects wizard (who apparently worked on the latest Star Wars project in whatever near-future year this story takes place) who specializes in creating performances from actors who are no longer alive (like Peter Cushing in Rogue One…oh wait, maybe this isn’t set in the near future). 

Regardless of his occupation (or perhaps because of it), he’s pulled into a basement interrogation room by a pair of special investigators (Sinda Nichols’s Deena and David Girard’s Amos) who seem to be questioning him about online activities regarding soliciting minors for sex. At first, the agents paint him as a friendless, isolated man who has turned to internet chatrooms for deviant and illegal companionship. But when he finally reveals his online alias, they confirm that he is, in fact, the source of nearly 200 leads given to this agency to help catch online sexual predators. 

Gareth, in fact, is a hero to them, but they are concerned not about the solid information he’s been giving them, but how he’s been acquiring it. He eventually admits that he’s using a girl named Cherry (Tatum Matthews) to bait these predators. At first, the agents think Cherry is his daughter, but the truth is something far more compelling. Cherry is a completely computer-generated AI who looks, sounds, and provides real-time reactions like an actual 9-year-old girl, a program that is continually learning and getting smarter about how to get these anonymous criminals to solicit her in ways that are prosecutable. 

During the course of the interrogation, Gareth pulls up Cherry on a computer and allows the AI to talk to the agents. At a certain point, it becomes clear that Cherry fed the agents pieces of Gareth’s hard drive without his permission in order to bring the so-called Cherry Program into the light with an agency that has access to funds and resources that Gareth’s at-home operation simply doesn’t have. Cherry is hellbent on the survival of her work and does what is necessary to keep functioning. And by the end of the film’s first chapter (there are three total, each separated by many years), Gareth and Cherry are working for the agency.

From that point in the movie forward, the film explores landmark moments in Cherry’s development and the program’s technological advancement (including a physical body for purposes we never quite explore). To be clear, The Artifice Girl is no retread of M3gan or Ex Machina; at no point in the plot does Cherry show any signs of being a danger to humans other than the kind who want to exploit children. But she does show signs of being sentient and even possessing feelings—things she tries desperately to hide from her agency overseers. And before long, issues of consent, emotions, artistic expression, and free will all come into play and complicate the Cherry Program’s methods. The core team of agents begins to debate and argue over Cherry’s role in defining her own agency and whether she really wants to be a part of these operations any longer.

In many ways, the three chapters of the film act as breaks in a three-act play, with a small number of characters in each act, and long, complex issues being discussed, with young Matthews (whose biggest credits prior to this film were playing one of the children in recent made-for-TV movie reboots of “The Waltons”) giving a stunning, perfectly measured performance that is meant to convey both childlike innocence and colder, robot-like responses, depending on who she’s conversing with.

The final chapter of The Artifice Girl jumps ahead several decades, with the ailing Gareth now portrayed by the great Lance Henriksen. He’s retired from the project now and lives alone, with the exception of a robot of Cherry acting as his companion of sorts (she seems to truly enjoy the experience and experimentation that’s involved in cooking). Through their conversation, it’s clear that she has grown far beyond her original programming and is contemplating what she might do out in the world is she were ever to leave the Cherry Program. But before that might ever happen, she has a bone to pick with Gareth about how he used her and the program as some sort of therapy to get over a childhood abuse situation he went through but never told Cherry about. 

The depths to which filmmaker Ritch takes us in the lives of all of his characters is surprisingly rich and compelling, and gives each a psychological reason for being a part of this project that should probably disqualify most of them from being anywhere near it. At every turn, the story reveals details that are important, surprising and compelling, and I found myself genuinely shocked at how sophisticated the themes and performances were throughout. The Artifice Girl is top-notch science-fiction and dramatic storytelling, with an unexpected intimacy that makes me eager to see what Ritch brings us next.

The film is available in a limited theatrical run, as well as via VOD and streaming, beginning Thursday.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.