Simulant (2023) Review
Simulant was directed by April Mullen (Wander, Badsville), written by Ryan Christopher Churchill (Love Your Enemy), and stars Robbie Amell (Upload, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City), Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience, One True Loves), Jordana Brewster (Random Acts of Violence, Annapolis), Alicia Sanz (The Devil Below, Billionaire Boys Club), Mayko Nguyen (ReGenesis, Hudson & Rex), and Sam Worthington (Transfusion, Fractured). It follows an android who finds a way to remove the barriers placed on his emotions as it, and its emancipator, are hunted by a government agent.
The Plot: A long history of chase pictures precedes the advent of androids, so it’s hard for even the best of writers to structure a new story of a supposed technological uprising. Churchill doesn’t fumble the basics, but it doesn’t add anything to them either.
AICE (Artificial Intelligence Compliance and Enforcement) and its agents, like Kessler (Worthington), whose wrist was mangled while apprehending Esme (Sanz), have been having a rough time keeping newly emotionally receptive simulants (perfect mechanical copies of a deceased person’s body and mind) from attacking the populace. He investigates and is put on the trail of hacker Desmond (Liu), who’s helping Faye (Brewster) deal with Evan (Amell), the troubled simulant of her late husband.
Simulant has a bit of an issue with contrivance, keeping characters within arm’s reach of each other, but never meeting organically; it’s a problem that soon gets worse as Kessler continues to work behind the eyes of AICE (though it’s never explained why they don’t want him to do this), meeting with Nexxera CEO Michiko (Nguyen) to learn more about the hacker.
Churchill doesn’t really have a plot to follow, as Evan is sent away to discover his humanity for an extended period of time. Eventually, the sleuthing brings Simulant’s characters together, but by this point, Mullen has spent too long spinning narrative wheels to serve up something grander, as the apex of the plot has to do with Desmond launching an update patch before Kessler can stop him. Apart from the aforementioned contrivances it’s competently written, but wholly unfulfilling as most of the characters have nothing to do.
The Characters: It’s hard out there for writers who try to provide an alternative look at accepted canon, but when perfection has been reached, where else is there to go but down? Simulant answers that question via its ensemble.
Evan’s awakening doesn’t really resonate beyond the initial shock because of the film’s inability to stick with the character (or any character for that matter) for longer than a few minutes at a time. His human incarnation doesn’t get any backstory because Faye had those memories wiped; she isn’t attended to either, disappearing for most of the middle stretch. Because the script provided little to work off of, there’s no measurable growth of the character, leaving Amell to admirably try and fill in the blanks with a solid performance.
Desmond has blips of personality and motivation, but critical miscasting undoes whatever potential was present, as Liu is somehow less expressive than the robots. He used to work for Nexxera (a leading manufacturer of robotic companions) but quit after realizing that the next model of simulants would essentially be enslaved upon gaining sentience, citing the writings of Dostoyevsky as his influence. At least he has a motive, and there are some shades of grey left untapped as he wants the simulants to be free while he himself uses them to meet his goals, but there’s just not enough.
Kessler is the most sympathetic of the cast, as he’s seen the damage they can cause firsthand and wants to stop it however he can. Simulant alludes to this causing friction between him and his ex-wife(?) and distance from his son and tries adding urgency via the usage of a robot as his babysitter, which helps, but it’s Worthington’s (Oscar-worthy) harried performance that sells the motive, as well as a later expansion. The cast does what it can, however, just about everyone is spread thin with little room for depth.
The Thrills: Straining for a sense of stakes isn’t something that Simulant does. A slow burn approach can work well for these kinds of sci-fi movies, but there’s equally little care for the health of the outside world or the process of protecting it.
Imminent danger is cared for in small flashes, and these are the best moments of the film. The synths are bound by a series of rules not dissimilar to the iconic laws of Issac Asimov, and Kessler’s encounters with Esme and a handful of other robots show the importance of their presence, as the physical strength of a freed robot can easily overpower a human in order to reach safety to reach its goals. On the same token, the ability to lie not only complicates the agent’s mission but also has inferable ramifications on the lives of civilians who own simulants. It’s an intimidating sight and a horrible thought.
Searching and running make up the other method of generating suspense, and Mullen only sometimes makes that process happen. Evan and Desmond are itinerant for most of the runtime – separately so, but always moving – however, they’re supposed to go hand in hand. This only kind of happens because automated systems do a lot of legwork for the AICE operator, with facial recognition and an instant background check removing a large thrill of the chase. Once the two fugitives meet up, the movie finds a way to excite with the prospect of their capture, but this is deflated when one is reminded that Simulant’s peak stems from a digital download.
The Technics: While there was no chance that Simulant was going to match something like Blade Runner in terms of technical quality, it does manage to be a beautiful piece of filmmaking within its restraints.
Mullen is a skilled helmer when it comes to visuals, and her choice of Russ De Jong (Defining Moments, Control) as the cinematographer couldn’t have been a better one. While a lot of the movie’s visual staying power comes from the interesting locations, the slightly desaturated colour palette and focus on the expressions of the cast hold the movie together when it almost falls apart due to its distinct lack of focus.
That’s the other noteworthy trait of Mullen; sometimes the material she picks can wriggle its way from her grasp, in this case, Simulant can’t decide whether it wants to enthrall with the dangers its robots engender, deconstruct them, or maintain a balance of both like the previously mentioned Ridley Scott film, making the film a bumpy sit.
Restraints are obviously present, but the crew pulled most of their weight. Though the production didn’t need to show the difference between one of the previous models of the androids and their most current form, the makeup department – more specifically the prosthetics by Steve Newburn – went ahead with it anyway to solid results. Ingrid Jurek’s (A Date with Miss Fortune, Wynonna Earp) production design also served the film well with settings that illustrate a societal downturn without going overboard into squalor. Blitz//Berlin’s (The Void, Psycho Goreman) score does try a little too hard to replicate the classics, but the overall effort is positive.
Mullen did decent work with a middling script, but the end result of Simulant feels closer to its title than it hoped to be. It’s a watchable effort, but a confused and loose one that won’t stick around until the robot revolution.
Mongrel Media has released Simulant in Canada on various Digital Platforms. In the US it’s currently available on Direct TV’s VOD, it goes into wider release on June 2nd via Vertical Entertainment. If you’re looking for more robot revolution, FilmTagger can offer some suggestions.