Storytellers have been fascinated with the idea of artificial beings for centuries, from the animated statues of the golem mythology to the robot domestic partners of The Stepford Wives and the “more human than human” replicants of Blade Runner. The more modern spin on this involves the self-awareness that seems to be inextricably intertwined with the so-called singularity: What if you and I already are synthetic beings but have no clue that transition has occurred? Much of the fan debate about whether Deckard (Harrison Ford) in Blade Runner is himself a replicant similarly mirrors our cultural anxiety about identity in the age of technology.
Into this cultural zeitgeist where we argue daily about the potential threat posed by AI and robots appear in the most unlikely of places, writer Ryan Churchill and director April Mullen offer up Simulant, a complex story of simulants being granted freedom and self-awareness by a rogue hacker. The original title of the film, interestingly, was Hello Stranger, which proves a bit of a spoiler. In fact, as with every modern replicant-themed story, the basic question for every viewer is immediately who’s real and who’s a robot?
The story revolves around Faye (Jordana Brewster) and her loving husband Evan (Robbie Amell), who have an idyllic life, having both recovered from a horrific auto accident. Evan finds there are certain limitations to his free will – he physically cannot go into Faye’s office even if he wants to do so – but he thinks nothing of it, though he is troubled by nightmares of the accident. Meanwhile, AI Compliance Enforcement cop Kessler (Sam Worthington) is trying to chase down Esme (Alicia Sanz), a rogue simulant who is somehow freed from following the Four Precepts that keep humans safe. Definitely an homage to I, Robot and author Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics.
As the AICE deconstructs and examines Esme’s memories, they repeatedly find reference to Casey (Simu Liu), but when Kessler and his team try to capture Casey for questioning, he proves impossible to catch. Then he shows up to help Faye diagnose and fix some odd behaviors that Evan has been exhibiting, Simulant Evan who is apparently also a part of the AI Compliance Enforcement agency (again, shades of Blade Runner). Meanwhile, someone’s figured out how to circumvent those Four Precepts, giving the latest generation of simulants free will and agency with no constraints. Dangerous!
I’ll be honest, I went into Simulant thinking it would be yet another low-budget sci-fi film aiming for streaming revenue, but was surprised by its sophisticated storyline and A-list cast. You’ve seen all of these actors in big films and they all deliver smart and engaging performances. The visual effects aren’t startling, but are solid enough to keep moving the story forward, which is all they should be in a good film anyway.
Director April Mullen has a background mostly in TV but nonetheless delivers a solid and entertaining film that hits above its “indie sci-fi” weight class and could have done well in the theater. Indeed, there’s a lot to like with this replicant self-awareness story. I also appreciated the many, many nods to Blade Runner (including that the company that produces them is “Nexxera”, a nod to Blade Runner’s Nexus line of replicants, and that Evan is a sixth gen simulant). This isn’t a groundbreaker, but it is an entertaining 95 minutes. Recommended.