Having established a strong lane for herself somewhere in between narrative and nonfiction filmmaking with her recent run of features, Crystal Moselle stays on course with Sophia, a sly documentary concerning artificial intelligence and human fallibility that proves to be her deftest work so far. Joined this time around by cinematographer Jon Kasbe, who also serves as co-director, and backed by Showtime — poised to distribute theatrically — Moselle premiered her latest at the 2022 iteration of Tribeca Film Festival, a smaller platform for the Sundance regular, but a fitting one considering the role parallel org Tribeca Film Institute played in financing her 2015 documentary The Wolfpack, a project conceived and shot in relative geographic proximity to where this fest is held (also the case with 2018’s Skate Kitchen and its television adaptation/extension Betty.) Not the case this time around though, with Sophia instead finding Moselle and collaborator Kasbe globetrotting in pursuit of their film’s title subject, a humanoid robot animated by a supposedly revolutionary AI, and its obsessive/probably delusional creator.
The creator in question is David Hanson, an American roboticist based out of Hong Kong who, by the time Moselle and Kasbe link with him, is several years and millions of dollars deep into his Sophia project, which endeavors to perfect a bot capable of cleanly mimicking human interaction using a combination of carefully pre-programmed facial and verbal responses. Constantly on the move booking expo appearances and pleading with investors to extend funding, Hanson’s belief in Sophia reads as totally sincere, and yet he’s plagued by an inability to sell anyone else on the necessity or use of his beloved creation. It’s unlikely that audiences will find themselves particularly convinced either, the inventor/entrepreneur’s off-putting casual arrogance matched by a childlike naivete that makes it hard to have much faith in his vision.
Undoubtedly skeptical themselves, Moselle and Kasbe massage Sophia’s narrative into something close to farce, casting Hanson as a larger-than-life tragicomic figure emblematic of the current state of American hucksterism. Enthusiastically likened to the Mechanical Turk hoax — an 18th-century chess-playing automaton that was actually operated by a human hidden inside — by one of Sophia’s primary programmers, this supposed artificial intelligence is closer to a very expensive, expressive chatbot given physical form, physically manifested as the head and torso of a human woman. With cameras fixed in her eyes and her mechanical skeleton dressed in realistically textured skin approximate (the nightmarish application of which is shot by Kasbe in unsettling close-up for the film’s opening moments), Sophia is able to maintain eye contact and carry on conversation while also contorting her face to express a range of specific emotion. But while she can respond to tone and a wide variety of prompts and communication styles, she can’t actively analyze this information to learn on her own, all of her responses written and programmed in by Hanson and his team in response to her performances. Thus, Sophia is shown to be more akin to a (super complex) puppet, an amusing performance piece that plays well on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show or Will Smith’s Instagram, but effectively purposeless outside of the media sphere.
Moselle and Kasbe really lean on the tension between Hanson’s perception of himself and his passion project, and the way in which viewers will inevitably receive them both, with stretches of the film working a pretty arch angle, mining his bumbling misfortunes and masculine, antisocial obliviousness for nervous, cringe laughs. Some of this is genuinely funny and pointed — Hanson’s struggles to defend the need for his robot to be so femme along with him interchangeably addressing her as if she was both his wife and daughter stand out — while some of it might be just a bit too mean, though the directors do attempt to balance this with some humanizing familial drama concerning a sickly mother to okay effect. At the very least, the tone overstays its welcome operating in that register despite only going for 89 minutes. Regardless, Sophia is more smart than it is snide, and Moselle’s relationship with her subject/target is more clear-cut and accessible than it was with the rather dubious The Wolfpack. Now three features and one television series deep into her career, Moselle continues to refine and rework her narrative nonfiction approach to storytelling. Sophia, then, proves to be her most assured and cogent film, though with the unfortunate though not fatal side effect of also being her most staid.
Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.