Tribeca 2022 Review: Jon Kasbe and Crystal Moselle’s “Sophia” Charts a Feat of Human Engineering, For Better or Worse

Lest one think from the opening scenes of “Sophia” that David Hanson is a god, evidence is quickly provided to the contrary as he tries to rouse his young son Zeno out of the bathroom to get to school on time. At home, he is unquestionably mortal as he fixes breakfast by placing a piece of bread on a gas grill to toast and awkwardly wrap around a sausage like a bun and he keeps tabs on Zeno as the witching hour draws ever closer, but at the office, he is a visionary that has created one of the most lifelike robots in the world, with nearly enough artificial intelligence and eerily accurate motorization of facial features to believe he’s interacting with an equal, only his authority is never questioned.

Hanson is hardly made out to be some egotist or megalomaniac in Jon Kasbe and Crystal Moselle’s fascinating profile, but that’s the point. A one-time art student that struggled to connect with the world following the death of his father early in life, Hanson was drawn towards technology as a way of seeking someone to talk to and has carried on a fractured conversation ever since, refining one robot after another with greater and greater financial backing to work with, but with seemingly less return on investment when there is incrementally less to improve upon and the general public doesn’t appear ready yet to embrace his work. His latest model Sophia, resembling Ava from “Ex-Machina” with its human interface and exposed cranium, has no trouble attracting curiosity, securing a spot on “The Tonight Show” to take questions from Jimmy Fallon and lauded as a breakthrough in Saudi Arabia, where Sophia is given citizenship as a novelty gesture, but convincing the masses fully that he’s created anything more than a party trick is far more difficult.

Captured with the epic, filmic quality that made Kasbe’s “When Lambs Become Lions” so compelling with the filmmaker again serving as his own cinematographer, “Sophia” is filled with the grandeur that Hanson’s big idea demands, but illuminates the constraints of what Hanson and his small team are capable of. (His programmer Sarah Siskind laments that Siri probably has thousands of employees tending to every aspect of its speech when Sophia only has four.) However, those limits increasingly look less practical than psychological as pressure mounts on Hanson to make the company profitable and although Sophia is in demand for media appearances and presentations, the asking price for one to have at home – or as Hanson imagines, at theme parks – is a bridge too far. The connections that Hanson has been able to make with others up to the moment of the film are only briefly addressed, whether it’s his wife Amanda or the largely faceless investors on conference calls that believed in him enough to back the project, but “Sophia” gets at the roots of why he’s disconnected from most, not because of some specifically alienating individual traits, but because of what he has in common with so many as he fixates on the seemingly inconsequential and may not have the perspective to see what he’s actually working on because of all the work he’s poured into it.

“Sophia” offers cold comfort for anyone that might fear from its start that the robot overlords are prepared to overtake us all, as it makes clear that progress is inextricably tied to its human creators who may have radical visions of the future, but can only look to themselves for reference. Although that may seem like a liability in Hanson’s line of work, Kasbe and Moselle find it to be a great strength in theirs.

“Sophia” will screen again at Tribeca at the Cinepolis Chelsea Theater 5 on June 11th at 5:45 pm and June 18th at 5:30 pm. It will also be available to stream at home beginning June 12th at 6 pm through the end of the festival on June 19th, geoblocked to New York.