Fantasia 2022 Review: Franklin Ritch's THE ARTIFICE GIRL, A Bold New Voice In Science Fiction Is Here
The popular image of science fiction or speculative fiction is often one filled with whiz-bang gadgets, flying cars, futuristic shapes, and neon lights illuminating a dystopian world-yet-to-be. However, when you get down to the nitty gritty of it all, that’s window dressing on a genre of stories that require only an idea and a vision for a future filled with possibility. This is where Franklin Ritch’s The Artifice Girl truly understands the nature of the story it seeks to tell; a simple, contained story of good intentions gone rogue. Without the bells and whistles the story becomes the star, and this one shines far brighter than any dumb laser sword.
Garreth (director/star Franklin Ritch) is in trouble, he thinks. Yanked into a sparse basement office by the stern looking Special Agent Dena (Sinda Nichols) and her reluctant partner Special Agent Amos (David Girard), what Garreth thought was an interview for a tech grant turns out to be an interrogation into some pretty nasty criminal behavior. When it turns out that Garreth is not the criminal, but rather a vigilante with an unusual accomplice named Cherry (Tatum Matthews), the group try to find a way to work together to use his unique creation to prevent future crimes, but they run into moral and ethical complexities that neither they nor the world are prepared to deal with.
The Artifice Girl is a small film with very big ideas. Exploring the depths of conscience, consent, the laws of robotics and where they break down, the depth of trauma and its effects on future behavior and the morality thereof, like I said, very big ideas. But it addresses them all with surprising nuance and emotional intelligence that gracefully substitutes for the kind of hyperactive visuals that often identify science fiction features.
The film involves an AI entity being used to track and prosecute the vilest of offenders and what happens when the intelligence of the tool outpaces the intelligence of the user. It’s a fascinating look into questions that we are already asking in advance of the inevitable, but its ability to focus these conundrums on very simple, but very important topics is a stroke of brilliance that allows the film to feel not only very smart, but also challenging to both the characters within and the audience without.
There is nothing in The Artifice Girl that visually places it in any kind of future landscape, it’s just understood that since we haven’t heard of the technology, it must be sometime beyond our own. It uses a very distinct three act structure that explores the status of our characters at varying points throughout their journey, each of which is set in nondescript interiors allowing the viewer to imagine the world outside changing. Production design is minimal, but effective, we don’t need holograms or kooky angular furniture to tell us we’re in the future, the script tells us that in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle.
The performances from the four main leads evolve as the film and characters evolve. They all begin to question not only their motives and their humanity, but also what humanity even means. Garreth stands firm upon his belief that his creation is a tool and will be used as such, while Amos – a skeptic from the start – becomes increasingly unsure about his feelings toward the project and the morality therein. There’s an interplay within the dialogue and the performances that allows the film to explore these big questions from multiple angles, placing the viewer into the conversation by predicting the questions they’ll ask before they ask them. It’s a very clever and efficient way of telling the story while staying one step ahead of the audience, and it works like gangbusters.
Some of the ideas in The Artifice Girl aren’t exactly new, but the intelligence of this project is the way in which Ritch, as writer/director/star, approaches them. Perhaps the nearest comparison, and one I imagine we’ll see a lot, is with Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. However, as much as I enjoy that film, it does rely heavily on the above-mentioned whiz-bangs and intentionally removes the viewer from the world of the film, whereas The Artifice Girl exists in places we’ve all been. These locations, while definitely budgetarily efficient, also allow the audience to place themselves within this future narrative and provide a level of connection that science fiction frequently lacks.
The Artifice Girl is a tremendous example of indie sci-fi done right. There is pathos in the characters and the performances that can only be drawn from a combination of incredible writing and dedicated performances from a small cast who all understood and aced the assignment. The Artifice Girl sets a new template for speculative fiction on screen, the story is the thing, and the fact that this is Ritch debut feature is absolutely astonishing, I expect he’ll continue to do great things, and I’ll be there in the front row when he does.