With Simu Liu, Sam Worthington, Jordana Brewster, and Robbie Amell, Canadian sci-fi thriller Simulant has more star power than most summer blockbusters. Their names alone will probably trick a few people into indulging in this bland ripoff of better movies about android uprisings, the threat of artificial intelligence, what it means to be human…blah blah blah. It’s been done to death, and while occasionally an homage to the works of Philip K. Dick will find something new and contemporary to say, Simulant doesn’t bother wasting its time trying, so it wastes our time instead.
The film is set in a future where androids known as simulants have become a normal part of society. There are early models that are basically there just to serve, looking a notch above Rosie from The Jetsons. But there are other, more advanced lifelike models that have been used to replace entire lives, or to extend the life of its owner. The simulants have rules, of course. You can probably recite them in your sleep, but basically, they aren’t allowed to hurt people, must listen to commands, and are programmed not to act of their own accord. Of course, it isn’t long before we start seeing reports of simulants doing just that. They are gaining sentience, and that sets anti-simulant agent Kessler (Worthington) on their trail. He’s licensed to do just about anything to bring in unsanctioned simulants, even shutting down whole neighborhoods with an EMP blast.
Simulant haphazardly weaves in a number of interconnected storylines of varying degrees of interest. Early on we are introduced to Faye (Brewster) and Evan (Amell), and we immediately know what’s up. A car crash is quickly followed up by Evan waking up with no clue as to what happened. Clearly, Faye has replaced her dead husband with a simulant, but she is having second thoughts about what she’s done. Pretty crappy hand of cards he’s been dealt, right? He thinks he’s living a happy life with his love, only to find out he’s an expensive imitation with cloned memories. Existential crisis!
A connecting thread is hacker Desmond (Liu), who is infatuated with a beautiful unlicensed simulant named Esme (Alicia Sanz), who proves how dangerous she is by kicking Kessler’s ass in their first encounter. Desmond is seemingly everywhere, as he also helps Faye as she tries to get away from a troubled Evan who has had his world ripped out from under him.
Directed by April Mullen from an unfocused script by Ryan Churchill, Simulant can’t seem to decide which character to make a priority. In an attempt to feature them all, none of them are served very well. In theory, Evan should be the focus as his “awakening” approaches many of the questions about AI and sentience that Dick, Isaac Asimov, and other writers have pondered for decades. Instead, the film barely approaches any of it, counting on audiences to figure it out for themselves. Kessler, who I guess is the Rick Deckard of this story, is thinly written and so is his backstory. He’s presented as something of a rebel, defying the unfathomable orders of his employer whose sole task is keeping simulants in line. It’s never explained why they seem to be against Kessler doing his damn job. Desmond is a troubled soul and potentially sympathetic but he’s also the most boring character of all, made worse by flat-out terrible acting by Liu who seems checked-out the entire time.
Simulant just doesn’t bring anything new to the table. That said, production values are pretty decent for a film that’s clearly working with restraints. Credit goes to them for not outright aping the neon cityscape of Blade Runner but for going instead with a look that is contemporary, society on the edge of collapse stuff. If only Simulant were willing to take more risks to stand out and be unique, to bring fresh ideas to a worn-out tale, maybe it wouldn’t itself be a simulant of better films.
Simulant opens in theaters on June 2nd.