A talented cast and technical achievement aside, “Simulant” fails to replicate the magic of the films and stories it was heavily inspired by.
On paper, Simulant has a lot going for it, starting with a stellar cast that includes Jordana Brewster from the Fast & Furious franchise, Simu Liu from Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Sam Worthington from the television series Manhunt and the blockbuster films Avatar and Avatar: Way of the Water, and Robbie Arnell (who has starred in television series like The Flash and Upload but may be best known to horror fans as Max in The Babysitter — and its sequel — and Chris Redfield in Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City).
Then there’s the concept, which is both the film’s greatest strength and greatest weakness.
Billed as an ambitious sci-fi film that grapples with existential themes, the plot revolves around a futuristic society where humanoid simulants, aka replicants, have become fully integrated into society and have become dangerously advanced to the point where their self-awareness and autonomy are posing a threat to society. To curtail that threat, an enforcement agency is tasked with hunting down and eliminating rogue simulants.
If you’re a fan of speculative sci-fi literature and cinema, that no doubt sounds conspicuously familiar, and we’ll get to that elephant in the room shortly.
Simulant converges on three storylines.
The first revolves around a ridiculously wealthy and almost criminally beautiful young couple, Evan (Amell) and Faye (Brewster). She’s an artist, and it’s unclear what, if anything, he does for a living.
We get almost no time with the couple before a devastating car crash seems to upend their marital bliss. Their pre-crash relationship is established via quick vignettes of their leisurely and luxurious lifestyle, filled with artistic endeavors and passionate lovemaking meant to convey a sense of idyllic perfection.
These first couple of minutes are interspersed with some eerie images of mega-corporation Nexxera against an ominous score.
Nexxera is the company responsible for rapidly advancing simulants, robots at first designed to supplement human labor and now evolved to the point where they have become companions and lovers, virtually indistinguishable from humans. Evan and Faye own an early iteration of the simulants, a more robotic-looking woman who serves as their live-in maid.
A voiceover quickly sets the stage for a world where simulants must obey four key precepts ripped almost entirely from Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The robots must not cause harm to any human, they must not break the law, they must not modify themselves or any other simulant, and they must obey all orders from their human master.
Evan can’t remember anything about the immediate aftermath of the accident, and Faye refuses to talk about what happened. He isn’t himself, and he keeps having disturbing dreams. Meanwhile, Faye seems much more distant.
As the couple is grappling with the chasm in their marriage, we meet Detective Aaron Kessler (Worthington). He’s looking into a case involving a highly advanced seventh-generation simulant named Esmé (Alicia Sanz), who has broken her programming directives and gone offline for the past three years.
He tracks her down to an apartment building, but she handily disarms him and escapes into the city. A languid chase ensues, and Kessler is finally able to capture the simulant after using an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) gun to disable all electronics temporarily.
While investigating Esmé’s apartment, Kessler encounters Casey Rosen (Liu), a man who claims to be a neighbor who knows Esmé casually but didn’t realize she was a simulant.
It doesn’t take long, however, for Kessler to learn that Casey is more than just a neighbor. Back at the lab, a tech has discovered that someone has hacked Esmé’s operating system and altered her code, giving her complete autonomy. While extrapolating her memories, Kessler and the lab technician find evidence of the intimate relationship between Esmé and Casey, and Kessler suspects Casey knows a lot more than he revealed.
Given that it happens so early in the film and is heavily telegraphed in the film and the film’s marketing, it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal what happens next.
At about the 25-minute mark, director April Mullen and screenwriter Ryan Christopher Churchill opt to avoid any compelling mystery and reveal that Evan is a simulant.
As soon as the technology became available, Faye had a simulant created for her and Evan, which she stored in a secret room in the house. After Evan’s death in the car crash, she had his model activated and loaded with Evan’s memories so he’d be convinced he was human. Faye is now concerned that she made a mistake and should have let her husband go rather than try to replace him with an all-too-real but not quite-right replica.
She calls the manufacturer Nexxera for assistance, and they send over a sim expert: none other than Casey Rosen. Casey offers for Evan to stay in an apartment at his building so he can keep an eye on him until Faye decides whether or not to deactivate him permanently.
Evan begs Faye not to abandon him, but she insists she needs her space and time to think. Soon, Casey and Evan develop a friendship, and Casey offers to free Evan from the restraints of his programming and win back the love of his wife.
Meanwhile, we discover why Kessler is so hostile towards simulants, having lost a child due to the neglect of a simulant babysitter. That could pack an emotional punch if it were delivered with any gravitas or if we spent any time developing Kessler and showing him as a doting dad. As it stands, it’s up to the viewer to fill in all the gaps and rely solely on basic human empathy to care at all about Kessler’s loss.
From there, it all progresses in a pretty predictable way, without much dramatic tension to keep things interesting.
There’s no denying that Mullen has assembled some impressive talent for her production. But the material fails to deliver, causing the performances to feel lackluster through no fault of the committed cast.
Everyone does what they can, but there’s nothing here that feels particularly elevated or investing. The focus on making this an ensemble film and giving equal attention to every character and plotline is admirable, but it results in everyone feeling underdeveloped. The editing is frenetic, cutting rapidly between scenes without feeling truly cohesive. That’s a shame because some great scenes could have made a much bigger impact had more time been spent on them.
I especially loved Esmé heartbreaking story as an android that’s developed the capacity for love and empathy. Sanz is convincing and makes us care about her plight. I wish we had gotten more of this dynamic between her and the cynical detective blinded by grief.
If you read many reviews of Simulant, the biggest complaint you’ll come across is how derivative it feels.
That’s a critique I’m reluctant to dole out.
In a sense, there’s nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to the well-tread subject matter, like the terrifying rise of AI and its potential for harm to society.
The reason filmmakers keep returning to this well is that the ideas themselves are quite compelling and chilling — and now feel more relevant and unnerving than ever, given recent rapid advances in AI capabilities.
We’re at a pivotal point of significant change, where AI will soon become as much of an integrated part of our everyday lives as the internet, smartphones, and social media. The fear that accompanies such a technological revolution is understandable and rife for exploration in a genre that consistently reflects and ruminates on seismic societal shifts and collective unease.
It’s important to note that I’m a fan of sci-fi horror and generally feel like films that explore ideas of what it means to be human are inherently compelling.
Therefore, I’m pre-disposed to enjoy a film like Simulant — which happens to be well-crafted and polished.
Unfortunately, the film squanders that goodwill by doing so little new or interesting.
Ultimately, we are left with an intriguing concept that ends up being a bit of a slog to get through.
In the press notes for the film, critics were urged not to compare the film unfairly to its blatant influences like Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Bladerunner and rather judge Simulant on its own terms as an independent film from a burgeoning filmmaker. And I do think every piece of art deserves to be viewed by its own merits and not compared to other landmark works which precede it.
There’s nothing wrong with wearing your inspirations on your sleeve, and many respected and revered filmmakers borrow heavily from their own heroes. But there’s a mighty fine line between homage and regurgitation.
And if you are going to bring your own vision to material that’s already been explored with masterful brilliance, you better at least bring something new to the table that makes it your own. It might not be entirely original, but it should feel different and special in some way.
Otherwise, those comparisons to existing well-respected art are inevitable and destined to overshadow any other positive feedback your film deserves.
I’m not one to ask something as dismissive as, “Do we really need another movie about humanoid robots and the threat of a robot uprising?” I could ask that question about literally everything in the genre. Do we really need another zombie movie? Another movie about vampires? Another haunted house movie?
It’s all been done to death, and sometimes with such an extraordinary execution that it feels like there’s no point in ever revisiting the well.
And yet, though I may feel exhausted by the zombie subgenre and feel like I’ve seen it all, I’m always willing to give someone a chance to take something I’ve seen a million times before and somehow make it feel fresh again. It’s hard to do. But when it works, it’s always such a thrill to realize that even the most derivative-feeling content can find new life in capable and creative hands.
There may be nothing new under the sun, but we continually get great new art that manages to shine brightly amongst a sea of sameness.
While I absolutely respect Director April Mullen’s desire not to be compared to a film like Blade Runner, there’s nothing here that elucidates her own perspective or differentiates this in a meaningful way from that masterwork with a very similar plot.
From a production standpoint, there is much to appreciate.
It’s stylish, well-shot, well-scored, and technically quite impressive for a lower-budget effort.
I loved the effective world-building.
The effects are strong and used with appropriate restraint, with CGI blending in seamlessly with practical surroundings. We are given a realistic near-future that feels very close to our current reality, with just enough hints of technological advancements combined with a societal decline to make it feel relatable and chilling.
It’s obvious Mullen knows what she’s doing behind a camera, and her cinematographer, Russ DeJong, really delivers when it comes to strong visuals and truly captivating shots.
Sadly, the narrative isn’t as strong as the technical expertise.
The ideas are solid. And even if we’ve seen it many times before, the landscape of artificial intelligence and its implications for society is so rich and vast that it would be foolish to assume it’s been mined as much as it can be.
I love the idea of a film that’s both a heartbreaking love story and a thrilling sci-fi adventure that explores multiple sides of the complex AI debate. But Simulant never quite lives up to its potential to challenge or enthrall us.
As much as I wanted to, I never really cared about the characters or the plot resolution. It felt like I was simply watching a series of vignettes rather than an intricately woven and investing story.
The film’s biggest problem, outside of feeling far too familiar, is its pacing.
It feels considerably longer than its normally breezy runtime.
It’s sluggish and never engages the viewer enough to create any genuine tension or stakes. There’s no sense of urgency, and none of the characters are developed enough to make you invest in their plight.
I’m all in for a great slow burn, and I appreciate the time filmmakers take to establish a world and ground its characters in a sense of meaningful reality. I’ll happily invest in a film that requires my patience if that patience is rewarded.
Sadly, this isn’t a slow burn; it’s just slow.
There’s never much that resembles any real intrigue or climactic payoff. I checked my clock far too many times and didn’t end with a sense of satisfaction that the destination had remotely justified the journey.
I do appreciate that the film offers no easy answers and doesn’t really take a strong side on the debate over what makes us human, how far is too far when it comes to artificial intelligence, and what rights non-humans should have when they are purposely designed to look and feel and respond to external stimuli exactly like humans.
If a simulant is capable of love, longing, empathy, creativity, pain, independent thought, and complex human emotions, what keeps them from being human? That’s a topic rich for exploration, especially if you don’t believe in the idea of a soul in the religious sense.
Unfortunately, it’s a topic raised but never properly handled in Simulant.
It’s not that nothing works in Simulant; it’s just that none of it works well enough.
The 1927 German classic Metropolis, considered one of the original science fiction movies, was the first time artificial intelligence appeared on a screen.
Since then, we’ve had numerous examples of great cinematic exploration of the topic, even in the last couple of decades. Most recently, shows like the British anthology series Black Mirror and another UK Channel 4 production, Humans (which focused on the social, cultural, and psychological impact of the invention of anthropomorphic robots called synths), have proven this is still a fertile ground for thought-provoking entertainment.
I certainly don’t fault Simulant for wanting to tackle this subject matter, even if many of its plot points feel highly derivative.
I’m not going to call it a bad film.
As I mentioned, it’s competently made, features committed performances from its talented cast, and showcases an obviously technically proficient talent behind the camera.
The final few minutes are well-executed, and the primary set is absolutely stunning. The end shot is striking, and you’ll want to stick around for an effective mid-credits scene.
The problem really comes down to this; it doesn’t do enough right to endear itself to viewers or warrant an impassioned case that it’s well worth your time.
Wasted potential is the most heartbreaking of all cinematic sins, and Simulant suffers from a frustrating failure to be as good as you can’t help but believe it could have been.