Review by Sean Boelman
Artificial intelligence is all over the news these days, and while some worry about it replacing them in their workplace, one software might replace us after we die. Directed by German filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, Eternal You is a fascinating documentary about this emerging technology with an unexpected level of insight in its discussion of its timely themes.
The movie tells the story of Project December, an innovative generative AI software that allows users to interact with their deceased loved ones through a chatbot mimicking their conversational patterns. It’s a surprisingly balanced look at a trend that is still emerging, allowing the conversation around it to be incredibly nuanced.
Eternal You asks a lot of big questions about the technology at its core, with the central concern being whether or not it is “right.” And as one would expect, there are no easy answers. Ten years from now — heck, maybe even one year from now — we might look back at this documentary and wonder why it didn’t argue more strongly in one direction or the other. But for the point we are in the development of AI technology, this film feels incredibly timely and on-point.
One of the most impressive things about Eternal You is how well it manages to connect its intimate story to the bigger picture. Project December is not a particularly large use case for artificial intelligence — at least compared to more well-known ones like ChatGPT — yet Block and Riesewieck use this as a starting point for the larger AI conversation. They even include OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s testimony before Congress to provide context.
It’s honestly pretty surprising how much participation the filmmakers got from the creators of Project December because it’s not particularly flattering to their work. By no means is this a hit piece, but it’s engaging with the deep moral complexities of this technology, and the fact that its creators are willing to willing to have this conversation so openly is quite impressive.
Of course, the more compelling side of the film’s story comes from the clients of Project December, who have used the generative AI technology to recreate an avatar of their loved ones. The filmmakers are incredibly sensitive with these families, taking particular care not to shame them for their decisions, and the result is deeply empathetic and profoundly emotional.
Aesthetically, the movie is fantastic, with some excellent cinematography and an excellent score that do a great job of setting the somber tone for the film. Occasionally, it does feel like the level of formalism to the visuals does distract from the story itself, but what the movie explores is so compelling that it always draws you back in.
Eternal You has a fascinating story to explore, but what makes it even more impressive is the complex way in which it approaches this challenging material. In a time when so many movies about AI are unable to have the conversation with sufficient depth, Block and Riesewieck’s documentary has emerged as essential viewing.
Eternal You is screening at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.