Real Artists

Ken Liu’s stimulating short story Real Artists, like much science fiction, puts thought-provoking ideas over examinations of human behavior. In it, leading animation studio, Semaphore uses an AI to generate films and biometrically measure the physical responses of focus groups. We see this process through the eyes of Sophie (Tiffany Hines), an idealistic film student whose dreams are crushed by the assembly-line reality of her favorite film studio. Cameo Wood’s workmanlike adaptation of the story communicates its questions effectively but doesn’t add anything new.

Real Artists is mostly a dialogue-driven, word-for-word transcription of its source material. Hines gets a couple of nice reaction shots as she realizes how Semaphore makes its products, and Tamlyn Tomita is a brisk chill as ruthless founder Anne Palladon (gender-flipped from the source material, a nice touch). There are solid design choices in the Semaphore building, and a couple of gags in the background make it even more analogous to Pixar than it is in story. The movie as a whole feels copied and pasted, which is ironic given its premise.

Any former film student will empathize with Sophie’s horror as she witnesses how the sausage is made. It feels especially relevant to modern Hollywood when movie studios are run by people who don’t like movies, market research, and focus testing dominate the production process, and every Hollywood film has ten screenwriters’ names attached. There is even an app called ScriptBook that claims to algorithmically determine whether a given screenplay will be successful.

“…emotional manipulation is somehow separable from human creativity is fishy upon close inspection.”

Yet Real Artists’s suggestion that emotional manipulation is somehow separable from human creativity is fishy upon close inspection. Every boilerplate screenplay floating around producers’ desks in Hollywood is still written by someone. Meanwhile, even with advances in AI neural networks, they’re nowhere near able to reproduce basic narratives—Google “nightmare of children’s’ Youtube” to see how good AIs are at making stories. As a thought experiment, “What if a computer could tell an actual good story?” is about as interesting to me as, “What if you put your brain into a computer so that there were two of you, and then the computer you killed the real you, and then it made a bunch more of you, would it still be you?” Which is to say, *shrug* we’re a long way off from that.

One could make the case that Real Artists isn’t really about AI, but about the very real horror of discovering that your favorite filmmakers are not sharing their souls with you, but doing something both more inscrutable and more mundane. They’re playing you like a fiddle based on craft, expertise, and thoughtful rearrangements of preexisting ideas. Ken Liu’s story arguably gives the reader room to think about this tension, but the film loses some of that subtlety.

Wood’s adaptation adds another sci-fi twist to the end beyond its central premise, which has some initial creep factor but doesn’t land as well as it wants to. It feels like something out of the sloppier Black Mirror playbook: “Let’s blow their minds again!” With a longer running time, Real Artists could have made its central conceits more involving; as it is, it’s an interesting way to spend ten minutes, and not much else.

Real Artists (2018). Written and directed by Cameo Wood. Based on the story by Ken Liu. Starring Tamlyn Tomita, Tiffany Hines.

6 out of 10 stars

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