Director: April Mullen
Cast: Sam Worthington, Simu Liu, Jordana Brewster, Robbie Amell
Runtime: 1 hr 36 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scenes)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 25 May 2023
Synopsis: The laws governing androids dictate that owners must deactivate unwanted Simulants (SIMS). But since FAYE (Jordana Brewster) already pulled the plug on her late husband, she can’t bring herself to do the same to EVAN (Robbie Amell), his android counterpart–even after she realizes her relationship with him is only prolonging her grief. Instead of deactivating Evan, Faye sets him up in an apartment to live illegally on his own. While there he meets Casey (Simu Liu), a brilliant programmer who helps him become more human in order to win Faye back. Unbeknownst to Evan, his new friend is wanted for questioning by a determined Artificial Intelligence Compliance Enforcement (AICE) agent Kessler (Sam Worthington). Evan has to win over Faye’s heart before they are both discovered and he loses everything.
Simu Liu. Simu-lant. Get it?
Sadly, that is just about the only stroke of ingenuity in this otherwise derivative science-fiction thriller, which in true AI fashion, learns from its far superior genre predecessors (like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Ex Machina’ and ‘A.I.’) and stitches elements together in a clumsy and haphazard manner.
In typical tell-than-show fashion, ‘Simulant’ begins with a voiceover setting out the near future in which AI have come to live amongst us, thanks to a synth company called Nexxera. These AI are known as ‘simulants’, and are bound by four key precepts – one, to not harm any human being; two, to not modify itself or any other simulate; three, to not commit crimes against local or international law; and four, to obey all commands from its master. Never mind if you missed the narration the first time around; these precepts are repeated at least thrice throughout the movie.
Despite a promising set-up, you’ll realise quickly that ‘Simulant’ hardly goes anywhere. One part of the story probes the marriage between Evan (Robbie Arnell) and Faye (Jordana Brewster) in the wake of a terrible car accident, especially after Faye reveals that the real Evan had died in the accident and the Evan before her now is just a simulant. Another part of the story follows the cat-and-mouse chase between rogue Nexxera computer engineer Casey (Simu Liu) and AI Compliance Enforcement agent Kessler (Sam Worthington), the latter suspecting the former of plotting an AI uprising that could change the balance of the world altogether. And last but not least, there is what Casey is planning, putting into motion a series of steps which will liberate the simulants from their precepts and allowing them to enjoy free will.
There is plenty to get through, but unfortunately writer Ryan Christopher Churchill does not have the necessary finesse to not only develop each one of these plot threads, but also engineer a finale where they can converge compellingly. Ditto for director April Cullen, who leans too heavily on exposition to explain every little bit that happens onscreen (as if afraid that his audience might lose track along the way) and yet not enough to give it sufficient heft whether as a conventional thriller, a tragic love story or a morality fable. Indeed, the pacing is inexplicably leaden, and what is a brief one-and-a-half hours ultimately feels like two.
To be fair to the actors, they try their best with their respective thinly written roles. Arnell (from Amazon’s ‘Upload’) exudes sincerity playing a devoted husband who wants only to be by his wife’s side, but cannot quite manage the shift to awakened simulant at the end. Brewster struggles to portray the moral dilemma her character is in, whether to treat Evan as a human or as an AI, but is given short shrift by the writing. Liu fares the best as the duplicitous Casey, but also because he is the subject of a twist you can probably guess way before it is revealed. Worthington’s grizzled cop is nothing to shout about, but the actor’s stoicism is always watchable.
Even if it couldn’t be completely original, we’d wish that ‘Simulant’ had taken more time to develop its themes further. In fact, the movie comes at a time when our fears about AI no longer seem that distant, which is as good an opportunity as any for a genre renaissance about how AI could change the very face of humanity and of the world as we know it. Yet, ‘Simulant’ is more missed opportunity than anything, and despite its title as well as seemingly clever wordplay with its lead star Simu Liu, hardly stimulating whether viscerally or intellectually.
(Less stimulating than enervating, this derivative science-fiction thriller wastes the opportunity at being a socially relevant cautionary tale)
Review by Gabriel Chong