Directed by April Mullen | Written by Ryan Christopher Churchill | 95 min | ▲▲△△△ | Crave
For awhile now I’ve been impressed by the influence of the Charlie Brooker science fiction show, Black Mirror. Since its debut as a deeply cynical but scarily prophetic tech-anxiety sci-fi series, I’ve detected the reach of its potent and creative storytelling in a number of big-screen science fiction offerings. Sometimes it’s a good thing, even a great thing, and others it feels entirely miscalculated.
Black Mirror has taken over from the earlier, most influential sci-fi property, Blade Runner, which with the recent sequel has maybe run its course. Its particular fascination with sentient machines and what it means to be human has started to feel slightly stale if only because it’s been done so many times in the years since. Maybe we need new ways to explore these themes.
This isn’t that new thing. Simulant is so indebted to both Blade Runner and Black Mirror — particularly the episode called “Be Right Back,” which it rips off wholesale for one of its key plot points — it’s nearly impossible to enjoy the places its exploring relevant thematic concerns without getting hung up on the antecedents. What we have here is a Canadian genre picture that looks good and crammed with talented actors that never quite convinces as original.
Faye and Evan (Jordana Brewster of many Fast & Furious movies, and Robbie Amell) are a good looking, wealthy couple who’ve invested in android duplicates, simulants, who contain all their memories, so that their singular love can one day live on after they wither and expire. Why they’ve made this choice is kind of tossed off without much insight — the first of the many missed opportunities here.
But Faye is unhappy from the start, and that’s because Evan was killed in a car accident at some point recently, so she decided to activate his duplicate because she thought it would help with the grieving. It’s not working because she’s just not convinced the doppelgänger contains the soul of her dead partner. (This is exactly the plot of that Black Mirror episode.) Finally she reveals to the fake Evan his actual nature, which in him causes an existential crisis.
Meanwhile, Kessler (Sam Worthington of Avatar fame) is an agent of Artificial Intelligence Compliance Enforcement, or AICE. He’s got some family issues that are never really fleshed out, and instead is driven to find and stop any roaming or offline simulant, including a female named Esme (Alicia Sanz). One of Esme’s known associates is a guy named Casey (Simu Liu), whose ultimate mission is a little unclear but in the short term seems determined to free simulants from their human masters.
There’s a lot here to admire in the production design: The look of this place — shot in Hamilton, Ontario, I gather — is pretty cool, a lot of wide angle lenses and tasteful CGI to make it feel like a weirdly familiar near-future. Kessler has an interesting looking EMP gun that he uses a couple of times when the film is threatening to lean into its action or thriller elements.
Unfortunately, Simulant leaves way too many questions about the world in which it’s set. Blade Runner‘s replicants had extraordinary strength, just as the simulants do here, but in the earlier film that’s explained by the tasks they were made for — military or labour or sex. Here they never bother to say why they’re so strong, which would naturally make them more dangerous. Further to that, if these androids have to follow Asimov’s laws of robotics, which include never hurting a human, why does AICE even exist? Then there’s a previous iteration of the android, the housekeeper ‘bot, Lisa (Masa Lizdek). Why is she so obviously sexualized?
Finally, why isn’t Kessler using his EMP gun at a key moment late in the film when he needs to disable a simulant? The plot holes yawn and the film vanishes into them.
Bottom line here is that even though Simulant has style and interesting ideas, it’s simply too derivative of better movies and too predictable getting where it’s going, never allowing us to invest in its characters — human or otherwise.