Blank (2022)

Rating: C+

Dir: Natalie Kennedy
Star: Rachel Shelley, Heida Reed, Wayne Brady, Annie Cusselle

It feels like every day, there’s another example illustrating the pitfalls of AI. The week I write this, it was Google Gemini insisting on ethnically diverse Nazis. So far, these problems have been more embarrassing than dangerous. But the movies have been extrapolating busily, giving us entries like M3GAN, where the threats are directly existential, on an individual basis. Such is the case here. Writer Claire Rivers (Shelley) is struggling to complete her novel, and with a deadline looming, opts for a 31-day retreat, at a facility designed to enhance her creative flow. The only others present are a holographic butler, Henry (Brady) and an AI housemaid, Rita (Reed). Which is fine, until a cyberattack infects the facility. 

Thereafter, poor Henry is about as much use as Clippy the Windows paperclip (“It looks like you’re trying to escape with your life. Would you like help with that?”). Rita, meanwhile, disables Claire’s exit code and won’t let her leave until she has completed the novel. She’s no longer the helpful, passive servant intended, but has become more like an abusive parent. Which is particularly unfortunate, because that’s exactly what Claire had, largely suppressing her dark childhood memories (consciously or not – there’s a case to be made for both). However, digging into these might allow her to write the book necessary to fulfill Rita’s programming. Because copying chunks from The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t going to cut it. 

This wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought it was going to be considerably more physical, Claire having to tap into her inner Sarah Connor and go toe-to-toe with Rita. Doesn’t really happen, the android being more inclined to passive-aggression, calmly delivering lines like, “I can sense you are distressed. Perhaps you should lie down.” Claire does try to bulk up, but it’s only so she can drag Rita over to the entrance while she’s running maintenance overnight. Much of the second half is either the writer tip-tapping away on her manual typewriter, or flashbacks to her childhood, where her mother would literally not let the young Claire (Cusselle) out of her house. It’s a situation not exactly subtle in its parallels to her present one.

The weird thing is, Rita turns out to be exactly what Claire needs. Before the system compromise, she’s faffing around, going for runs, drinking wine, and failing completely to produce any meaningful output. Outside of one small piece of hand trauma, Rita doesn’t physically harm her charge. Indeed, she actually saves Claire’s life after the author starts a fire on Harry’s advice, hoping to force Rita to open the door. Her methods may be unconventional, sure. But they succeed, getting Claire both to produce work, and also confront uncomfortable truths about her past. The problem is, I’m really not sure this reading of Rita as arguably the heroine, is deliberate. It’s possible the makers accidentally stumbled into something, more interesting than their actual intentions.