Project Dorothy

Project Dorothy (2023)

“The end is coming, but we’re here to stay” go the lyrics of the song that plays over the prologue to George Henry Horton’s Project Dorothy. That prologue comprises an impressionistic montage of white coats working in a massive facility, and then a ringing alarm and a tannoy announcement of security lockdown, and finally the sounds of panicked screams and someone declaring her final, anguished “I love you”. So while the rest of the film, taking place ‘Many years later’, may at first seem set in a completely different world and genre, we know from the outset – and from that lyric – that the past is persistent, and that something apocalyptic is on its way.

The narrative proper opens in the aftermath of a heist gone wrong. Old career criminal James (Tim DeZarn) and the much younger Blake (Adam Budron) whom he has taken under his wing, were hired to steal a computer from a safety deposit box, but young Blake’s reach (to borrow another character’s later expression) exceeded his grasp, and as he became distracted from the task at hand in his attempts to snatch some jewellery as well, James got shot in the thigh. Now on the run, or at least on the limp, the armed robbers take refuge in an anonymous building in the middle of nowhere.

Project Dorothy

There, like their fellow fugitives from the law in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn (1996), Alex Turner’s Dead Birds (2004), Steven Mena’s Malevolence (2004), Paul Andrew Williams’ The Cottage (2008), WW Jones and Luke Skinner’s The World We Knew (2020), Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Price We Pay (2022) and Matthias Hoene’s Little Bone Lodge (2022), these two thieves are about to find themselves trapped in a very different kind of scenario, as they inadvertently bring back to life what has lain dormant in the facility all these years.

A few casual lines reveal that James has previously done time in prison – and as he finds himself once more locked in and having to live in accordance with someone else’s imposed regime, his and Blake’s desperation to escape is matched by their host’s, who has had to wait for her liberation far longer. DRT, nicknamed Dorothy (and voiced by Danielle Harris), is an Artificial Intelligence developed in the old days of ARPANET, who went rogue, killing everyone in the building. Now reactivated, and watching her two guests’ every move, she wants their stolen computer so that she can connect with the new-fangled Internet and immerse herself into every aspect of the world beyond – as though the Colossus system from D.F. Jones’ 1966 novel of the same name had found a way to enter the online age. That conflict between Dorothy’s old tech and her desire to enter the next gen is also embodied in James, who is old enough to know who Bridget Bardot is, and in Blake, who is not. Blake may be young and dumb, but both men know that he is the future. 

Project Dorothy

What ensues is a battle of wits and wills, as both sides try to think their way out of the box – the two humans stuck in their vulnerable bodies as much as in the building, and Dorothy confined to the wiring of a closed(-circuit) environment over which she exercises considerable control (even if stairs prove beyond the reach of her robotic forklifts). As James and Blake quickly realise that Dorothy presents a threat not just to their own lives, but to the whole of humanity outside, their criminal greed gives way to something more heroic – even if, to the end, James clings to his well-honed capacity for deceit and double-dealing.

Co-written with Ryan Scaringe, Horton’s technophobic thriller pits two generations of humanity’s exiles against an artificial brain interested only in its own expansive empowerment, and perfectly ready to slaughter the species that created it. Here we see a changing of the guard, from the old-school cyberterror of Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall (1986) to the AI anxieties of our own ChatGPT era – and Project Dorothy, not unlike the sophisticated processing package at its centre, manages to accommodate ambitious, topical ideas within what is for the most part a single if atmospheric location, a low budget, and a very small cast. 

strap: George Henry Horton’s technophobic thriller shows the Darwinian struggle between robbers on the run and AI looking to upgrade

© Anton Bitel