In a world set in the near future, actors have been replaced by “sprites,” A.I. holographic projections beamed into a location. But one director, Leslie, doesn’t want to go that route, convinced that a human actor could only deliver the rich, compelling performance she needs for her film.
But Karen, her producer, and the movie studio they’re working with want her to audition a few sprites, in order to keep production costs low. Leslie reluctantly tries out a few sprites at the audition –where they act out a scene from “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan” — and eventually encounters the holographic projection Jim.
Skeptical and determined to get her human actor, Leslie is hard on Jim. But Jim surprises her with unexpected glimmers of humanity and understanding, challenging her perceptions of the limitations of artificial intelligence.
Writer-director Kyle Bogart’s short sci-fi dramedy is unique for the genre in that it puts its focus on character and performance. There is less VFX razzle-dazzle here, and a simplicity in both its visuals and execution. But in the place of spectacle is both gently playful comedy and a surprisingly heartfelt interrogation of the potential, unexpected humanity that could be found in artificial intelligence.
While most films with a sci-fi bent are visual showpieces, here the emphasis is on the feelings and interactions. The film takes place in one location, and though the camera work is sensitive and thoughtful, its focus is on capturing the ebbs and flows of thoughts and feelings of the main characters, particularly the flinty, contentious director and the sprites auditioning for her.
The guiding lights of the narrative are the excellent writing and performances, which are never exaggerated, taking place in a register of human expression that feels realistic and rooted in the actual emotional situations. Actors Liz Beckham and Lee Eddy play the director and producer whose barbed back-and-forth over the film’s production form much of the comedic edge of the film, while actor Kriston Woodreaux nails both the amiable bundle of expressions and mannerisms of a programmed fascimile of human personality, while giving a glimpse of the sprite’s learning, thinking and longings.
It is this questioning and longing that comes to intrigue Lesley, especially as Jim unexpectedly reveals a disarming vulnerability and awareness of his own self and consciousness. Every emotional beat of this part of the scene unfolds with an almost breathtaking delicacy and care, knocking out both viewers and Leslie with an openness that is deeply and surprisingly moving.
As Jim takes this emotional discovery and puts it into his monologue, the careful, measured build-up at the beginning of “Sprites” pays off with a rich, emotionally satisfying ending that challenges Leslie’s perception of artificial intelligence, entertains genuinely deep questions about the possibilities of artificial intelligence — and explores a notion of humanity rooted not just in the body, but in the potential for self-awareness and growth.