Film festivals tend to have program guides and those program guides tend to have presentations describing the individual films, and I usually only read those descriptions when I’m on the ground at a festival trying to make a decision last second on my next screening.
I accidentally read the Tribeca Film Festival description for the Jon Kasbe and Crystal Moselle documentary Sophia and, I must admit, my eyebrow raised. The description refers to Sophia as “an inspiring, kinetic and moving storytelling: an uplifting film about what it means to be and feel human”.
Deeply annoying, though it may or may not be intentional.
The documentary I watched, one already slated for a Showtime premiere after a scheduled theatrical release, was a ruminative nightmare — a floating, nonjudgmental account of humanity’s collective loss on the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak, a hypnotically insinuating warning of an alienating future we are clearly not ready for.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for polysemic texts, ones in which storytellers leave room for multiple interpretations and let viewers fight over meaning, or even ones in which storytellers clearly mean one thing but clever reading takes it somewhere. completely different share. I have no idea Kasbe and Moselle’s intention Sophia to play. Maybe the text is right! I only know that I thought it was 89 minutes of deeply uncomfortable and viscerally infuriating cinema, like a live-action version of an Alex Garland film, and enjoyed how effectively the synthetic tale penetrated my skin. very real. Maybe I should just be careful with whoever finds Sophia uplifting or inspiring, but they should be just as careful around me.
Sophia is the story of David Hanson, founder of Hanson Robotics and inventor of Sophia, a robot designed either as a vehicle for artificial intelligence or as a mime of human intelligence and human behavior. And if you think they’re very, very different things and you want someone to chafe at confusing the two, Kasbe and Moselle’s documentary mostly on the wall won’t put your finger on the scales . There is not an ethicist to be found.
At first, in a strangely indeterminate year, Sophia falls far short of what Hanson promised her investors, and those investors begin to lose faith. Sophia is a rubbery head prone to involuntary muscle responses, as likely to sit quietly or respond non-sequentially as to respond appropriately to a question during the events Hanson keeps dragging her into. hope to make more money or reshape public perception. We start with kids at one of those events discussing the Terminator, and sometime later we see Jimmy Fallon joking around with a much-improved Sophia, although Jimmy Fallon would probably try to play silly games with the Terminator if he didn’t. they passed each other.
Is the inscrutable David Hanson a genius or a charlatan? Well, if he is a charlatan, the prosecution has not been lucrative for him, and the life he leads in Hong Kong with his wife, son and sickly mother is not luxurious. But by the end of the documentary, he’s far more successful in part due to his interest in NFTs, and I can’t paint a clearer picture of the whole effort than this: Sophia and the open market rise of NFTs are at a similar level of authenticity; I bet if you’re inspired by one, you’ll be inspired by the other, and if you’re pissed off by one, you’ll be pissed off by the other.
Sophia, as a documentary, is a nightmare, but it is a dreamlike nightmare. Kasbe and Moselle let the scenes unfold in a relaxed manner, without cynical editing or confrontational judgement. Is it troubling that Hanson plays God, while repeatedly comparing his creations — there are multiple Sophias, even though Hanson and Sophia herself treat them as a singular entity — to Disney animatronics? The film takes no sides. Is it even more troubling that Saudi Arabia grants citizenship to Sophia in a country where real, flesh-and-blood women suffer from a rights deficit? Well, at least the documentary acknowledges that it’s weird.
After 90 minutes of this, I don’t understand a thing about the technology Hanson is working with or his scientific process, but a true believer in his genius would tell me I don’t understand God’s process either.
The documentary has an eerie, artificial beauty that echoes that of Hanson’s creation, with her increasingly soft skin and increasingly expressive features. Kasbe and Moselle even film Sophia as a person, capturing her responses close-up, even when there are no responses to capture. I think they know this is all weird or maybe they’re completely captivated.
When Sophia reached 2020 and the world shuts down for COVID, the documentary alludes to the benign hope and comfort that an AI companion could have offered lonely people. It’s poignant because of this potential and the contrast with the reality of David laying off even his most dedicated employees, whose ability to believe in this scruffy or trickster God is no longer enough to sustain them. It’s not the least bit inspiring. It’s sad. Or maybe the inspiration is how far we are from Hanson’s ostensible goals, how irreplaceable and unrepeatable human consciousness is?
I really do not know.