The Artifice Girl (2022)
Directed & Written
by Franklin Ritch
starring Franklin Ritch, Tatum Matthews, Sinda Nichols, David Girard, & Lance Henriksen.
Drama / Sci-Fi
★★★★1/2(out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
This is your only warning.
Science fiction has to work harder these days to be predictive or, as they say, speculative, since technology has moved at warp speed since the 1970s, doubly so over the past two decades. Technology is, in certain ways, still catching up with cinematic and literary imaginations, too, whether it’s J.G. Ballard or Octavia E. Butler, or any number of other brilliant minds. The Artifice Girl speculates about the future of artificial intelligence and the hunt for child predators online, involving an artificial girl called Cherry (Tatum Matthews), her creator Gareth (director-writer Franklin Ritch), and their relationship with Deena (Sinda Nichols) and Amos (David Girard), two agents from a federal group who convince Gareth to work with them.
Ritch’s film is a serious sci-fi drama that raises all sorts of worthy questions about the ethics involved in artificial intelligence. The presence of Cherry, modelled as a little girl, further questions those A.I. ethics when it comes to the behaviour of sexual predators, which brings up a lot of other important real-life topics concerning technology.
Like any profound work of sci-fi, The Artifice Girl makes us question ourselves and our sense of morality by using sci-fi to push the horizons of our mind beyond the limits of society’s general conscience/consciousness.
A desperately important conversation in the film about artificial intelligence, that goes beyond just A.I., is the discussion of consent. On several occasions, Gareth conveys the message that he believes “consent doesn‘t apply here.” He elaborates with: “No feeling, no need for consent.” Amos correctly warns that this comment is a “slippery slope” in terms of morality. If someone, or some thing, can’t feel anything, does that mean there’s no need for consent? Does that mean someone unconscious doesn’t need to consent? What about someone with a disability who can’t feel themselves from the waist down? Or someone drunk? A coma patient? A dead body? Certain questions of ethics surrounding artificial intelligence expose our logic about consent and the right to one’s bodily autonomy when it comes to actual people.
There’s a great shot after the first time jump in the story, in which we see an artificial human—in scrappy robot form—sitting in the corner. This A.I. project sits in comparison to Cherry, who looks wholly human, because a lot of people might not see Cherry as humanised without her skin and various features, even if, as a half-finished robot, she was able to talk, and feel, and think for herself. Ritch’s film questions us: when it comes to the creation of artificial intelligence, or rather, artificial life, when does humanity begin?
The inclusion of hunting child predators in the story is important because it brings up a whole other ethical debate about artificial intelligence in terms of the sex toy industry. There are already life-sized sex dolls, so it’s only a matter of time before technology creates some A.I.-powered sex doll in the future. But it’s troublesome because there are already sex dolls that look like children. Here in Newfoundland just a few years ago there was a case in which a judge determined a sex doll modelled after a child was, indeed, child sexual abuse content (even though the accused man who owned it was later found not guilty of owning such content). Although in the film Cherry doesn’t meet any actual men offline, the questions about autonomy and consent that arise go beyond the film’s plot and story.
Similarly, I’m no longer vegan or vegetarian, yet I find there’s a compelling argument in the film that resonates with the beliefs of animal activists. Cherry can feel emotion, to the point she’s attempting painting and poetry in her spare time. All too often people who eat meat try to use the excuse that animals don’t feel emotion, therefore they somehow don’t deserve inherent rights, except those of us with brains understand that’s not true at all and the capacity to feel emotion means a great deal in terms of sentient beings. So, again: at what point is something/someone considered autonomous enough to be worthy of rights, human or otherwise?Ritch’s film also acts as a commentary on generational trauma, envisioning Gareth as the technological father of Cherry. Gareth’s desig and creation of Cherry is the figurative birth of a child, and throughout his life he raises Cherry, until he becomes an old man (Lance Henriksen) and has to face the errors of his methods after all those years. It’s a beautiful, albeit poignant juxtaposition skipping the story ahead to Gareth having aged to senior citizenship while his creation, his artificial daughter has remained the same little girl she was when he created her. In a metaphorical sense, as well as a literal sense, Gareth has kept Cherry as a child because of his own traumatic experiences as a child.
When the two meet for dinner near the end of the film, Cherry laments being created in the image of a girl named Maria connected to Gareth’s own trauma involving the mysterious Clearwater. She tells him: “I‘m stuck with your trauma.” She’s fed up with having been born and programmed to catch disgusting men and says: “I just want to know my life is mine.” She’s been infected by Gareth’s trauma, just like any child who becomes traumatised second-hand because of the generational trauma in their parents before them. Although Cherry is, thankfully, an artificial human, so she’s able to be reprogrammed, which Gareth offers her as one last gift, freeing her from her technological, digital shackles by deleting her “primary objective,” the symbolic trauma Gareth passed onto her.
The Artifice Girl uses science fiction as a way to discuss autonomy and human rights in general—something always current, but especially so considering the state of Roe v. Wade in America, and also in a post-To Catch a Predator media landscape. Deena specifically brings up a time when children had no rights, even though she questions the autonomy of children at the very same time. She ultimately agrees, at least somewhat that Amos has a point when he brings up his concerns about Cherry’s autonomy and the lack of consent from her up to that point in their project. Amos questions if Gareth’s afraid to ask Cherry for her consent because he’s “afraid she‘ll say no,” which is a striking line that cuts to the bone. Deena further makes a fantastic point when she notes that if those meant to be on the cutting edge of humanitarian efforts can’t consider the necessary new ethical frontiers their work comes up against, then who will?
Autonomy plays significantly into the film’s finale with Cherry and the older Gareth. When Gareth finally deletes the symbolic trauma with which he infected Cherry, he’s giving her back the autonomy she should have had from the beginning. And there’s a beautiful humanity after Cherry’s free, unhooked from the machine like a puppet without strings, as she dances to a record, then the record skips, showing the humanity or fallibility of machines; machines, like people, are not perfect. A fitting end.
While some may expect a thriller-like sci-fi when they read the film’s plot description, The Artifice Girl is actually a deeply thoughtful, dramatic rumination on the ethics of autonomy and consent, as well as a symbolic story of generational trauma through a sci-fi lens. Ritch pushes to ask tough questions that sometimes people aren’t willing to openly talk about in general conversation, at least not without resorting to argument, which is why genre fiction is such a perfect space to explore big, difficult questions.
The Artifice Girl comes along at a perfect time because of the recent blow to reproductive rights concerning abortion in the United States. The past few years overall in Western culture have seen a rise in social conversations about bodily autonomy and consent, specifically after the MeToo movement helped shine a spotlight on powerful men in prominent positions throughout public life abusing their powers in horrific ways. Ritch pulls from the zeitgeist of the late 2010s, but this story could be told at any era of time. Although many feel differently, I believe that the best, most important works of art have something unique to say about the human condition, regardless if it involves the past, the present, the future, or all of the above. The Artifice Girl digs hard into our humanity and attempts to deal with the difficulties it discovers—difficulties that existed long before the creation of artificial intelligence, difficulties that only get more complex the further technology advances and the longer we ponder what constitutes the necessary components to be considered sentient.