Two criminals are trapped inside a factory and hunted by a malevolent A.I. experiment in this low-budget but intermittently gripping thriller.
Film Yap is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“Project Dorothy” is part crime thriller, part dystopian science fiction parable and not a little ghost story.
A low-budget production from director George Henry Horton, who also co-wrote the script with Ryan Scaringe, it’s essentially a one-location, two-character story about a pair of criminals on the lam from a botched bank robbery who wind up trapped in a factory that’s been abandoned for 30 years. There they unwittingly reactivate a malevolent artificial intelligence project that desperately wants to pull a Skynet, traps the two and hunts them in a cat-and-mouse game over the next 70 minutes or so.
I guess that makes three characters, with Danielle Harris providing the voice of Project Dorothy, the evil ghost in the machine.
She’s represented as as a digitized red mask on a screen in an antiseptic bright, white room. Rather than being unemotional and plodding, like HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Dorothy is a cackling, self-consciously evil presence who teases and taunts the men while trying to kill them.
If she has a decidedly old-school look and feel, like Sandra Bullock in “The Net” being chased by a computer entity that can control everything from street lights to doors, that’s partly explained by Dorothy having been shut down in the early 1990s when she became belligerent toward her human creators, and partly by the constraints of the production.
Tim DeZarn plays James, the crusty older thief leading his partner, Blake (Adam Budron), who’s about half his age and dresses and acts like a 1950s rebel teen. They are on the run after robbing a bank — not for money, but for a computer hard drive in a particular safety deposit box. The theft was commissioned by an unnamed and unseen client, and presumably contains highly valuable proprietary information.
We don’t really know because the black box is the classic cinematic MacGuffin, something essential to the turning of the plot gears but with no definitive value we can ascertain.
The bank job went badly and James was shot in the leg. They also apparently lost their transportation and phones as they are now running on foot through unspecified badlands. (The film was shot in Illinois.)
They spot a huge factory in the middle of nowhere and break in to hide from the police. Turning on the power awakens Dorothy, who was shut down in a mad rush before using the then-primitive dial-up modem method to spread her coded seed to computers all over the world. We find this out from some old video recordings featuring a scientist (Olivia Scott) the thieves stumble upon in an office area that appears to have experience a riot.
Lots of sticket plot wickets here. Why would the scientists have not demolished or burned the place down rather than just leave? Or put up a bunch of fencing and warnings signs? Or simply turned the electricity to the building off — isn’t, like, someone getting that bill every month as a nudging reminder, ‘Yeah, we should probably power down Ms. World Domination over there.’
The men have a period where they start to think they’re being watched, and stuff inside the factory seems to move around — in particular, several forklifts that inch closer every time they look at them. Soon enough Dorothy makes her presence known, speaking to them through loudspeakers around the factory and locking all the doors. She overhears Blake saying their black box has a “Wifi dongle” and concludes it’s her way to connect to the outside world.
There are definitely a few energetic chases and tense moments. James has been around the block a few times and concludes they’re going to have to fight back to earn their lives, while Blake just wants to get out and get their payoff. The older man is dealing with that bum leg and can’t get around very well, plus Dorothy predicts it will soon get infected, and it does.
So the story becomes a race against time: can the criminals get out before they starve or go mad or Dorothy finds a way to kill them?
One aspect of the film that kinda works, and then doesn’t, are the “robot” sentries Dorothy sends after them. Again, this is super-cheap movie-making, so no T-1000s are about to wander around the corner with a bunch of cool CGI embellishments. Horton uses a cool first-person perspective of the mechanical automatons moving around at high speed to show them charging at the humans.
Without giving anything away, we eventually see exactly what the machines are and, well, any scares instantly turn to guffaws. They’re about as scary as those little roving mailbox droids in the Star Wars movies. Blake and James are able to escape them, if briefly, by climbing deeper into the bowels of the factory.
There are some intermittently gripping moments in “Project Dorothy,” along with a lot of amateurish storytelling and D-list production values. There’s enough here that you’d like to see what this cast and crew could do with more dough and polishing of the script.