‘Sophia’: Film Review | Tribeca 2022

‘Sophia’: Film Review | Tribeca 2022

Jon Kasbe, Crystal Moselle’s documentary about inventor David Hanson, which will air on Showtime later in the year, focuses on his efforts to bring artificial intelligence to a rubbery robot.


Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Film festivals have program guides. Those program guides often have blurbs that describe the individual movies. I tend to only read these descriptions when I’m at a festival trying make a decision on my next screening.

I accidentally read the Tribeca Film Festival description for Jon Kasbe and Crystal Moselle‘s documentary Sophia and, I have to admit, my eyebrow raised. The description refers to Sophia as “inspiring, kinetic and soulful storytelling: an uplifting film about what it means to be & feel human.”


The Bottom Line

It is profoundly disturbing, even though it may not be intentional.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Directors: Jon Kasbe and Crystal Moselle

1 hour 29 minutes

The documentary I watched, one already ticketed for a Showtime premiere after an intended theatrical release, was a ruminative nightmare — a free-floating and non-judgmental piece of storytelling about the collective loss of humanity on the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak, a hypnotically insinuating warning about an alienating future that we’re clearly not ready for.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love polysemic texts. They allow viewers to interpret the story in multiple ways and allow them to argue over the meaning. I don’t have a clue how Kasbe and Moselle intend Sophia to play. Maybe the blurb is correct! I only know that I thought it was 89 minutes of deeply uncomfortable, viscerally infuriating cinema, like a real-life version of an Alex Garland movie, and I appreciated how effectively the synthetic tale got under my very real skin. I might just need to be cautious around anybody who finds Sophia uplifting or inspiring, but they should be equally cautious 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 mimic for human intelligence and human behavior. Kasbe and Moselle’s documentary is a bit too fly-on the-wall if you don’t think these are very, very different and don’t want anyone to get upset at the conflating. There isn’t one ethicist.

As we begin, in an egregiously unspecified year Sophia is far from the things Hanson promised his investors. And those investors are starting to lose faith. Sophia is a rubbery head with inadvertent muscular reactions. She is as likely to sit still or respond in nonsequiturs than she is to correctly answer a question at the events Hanson keeps taking to her. This is in an attempt to drum up more money and change public perception. We begin with children at Terminator events and then we see Jimmy Fallon chatting with Sophia. However, if they met, Jimmy Fallon would likely try to play stupid games.

Is the inscrutable David Hanson genius or a charlatan, If he is a charlatan, it hasn’t been profitable for him and the life he shares with his son, wife, and mother in Hong Kong isn’t very luxurious. He’s now much more successful due to his interest in NFTs. I can’t paint a clearer picture of the whole endeavor than this: Sophia and the burgeoning NFT market are on a similar level. I’m betting that if one inspires you, the other will.

Sophia, as a documentary, is a nightmare, but it’s a dreamy nightmare. Kasbe and Moselle let scenes unfold in a relaxed manner, without any cynical editing nor confrontational judgment. Is it troubling that Hanson plays God while simultaneously comparing his creations — there is more than one Sophia — to Disney animatronics? The film does not take sides. It is even more disturbing that Sophia is granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia in a country where actual flesh-and blood women suffer from a lack of rights. It’s odd, but at least the documentary admits it.

After 90 minutes of this, I don’t understand anything about the technology Hanson is working with or his scientific process, but a true believer in his brilliance would tell me that I don’t understand God’s process either.

The documentary’s eerie and artificial beauty echoes Hanson’s creation with her softened skin and expressive features. Kasbe and Moselle film Sophia as if she were a person, even when there aren’t any responses. They may be aware of the absurdity of this whole thing or they might be completely enthralled.

When Sophia reaches 2020 and the world is shutting down for COVID, the documentary hints at the benign hope and comfort an AI companion might have offered lonely people. It’s poignant because it reveals the potential of AI companions and contrasts with David’s reality of laying off his most loyal employees, whose faith in this con man or scruffy God is no longer enough for them to survive. It’s not inspiring in the slightest. It’s sad. Perhaps the inspiration is in how far we fall short of Hanson’s ostensible objectives, and how irreplaceable human consciousness is actually?

I don’t really know.

Full credits

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Distributor: Showtime
Directors: Jon Kasbe and Crystal Moselle
Writer: Daniel Koehler
Producers: Bits Sola, Jon Kasbe, Crystal Moselle, Sally Campbell, Tim Nash
Executive Producers: Vinnie Malhotra, Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin
Editors: Daniel Koehler, Enat Sidi, Jon Kasbe
Cinematography: Jon Kasbe
Composer: West Dylan Thordson

1 hour 29 minutes

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