Sam Worthington as Kessler in Simulant.
- Directed by April Mullen
- Written by Ryan Christopher Churchill
- Starring Robbie Amell, Sam Worthington and Simu Liu
- Classification N/A; 95 minutes
- Opens in theatres April 7
In 1968, the prolific and prescient sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick asked, in the novel that would inspire Blade Runner, whether androids dream of electric sheep. In 2023, the prolific but not-quite-prescient Canadian filmmaker April Mullen unintentionally asks, in her new film Simulant, whether androids can put audiences to sleep. The jury is still out on Dick’s original query – although ChatGPT might have an idea – but I can unfortunately provide the answer to Mullen’s question: Yes, dear lord yes.
Simulant, a new made-in-Canada sci-fi thriller that will make you question the very necessity and notion of Canadian genre cinema, treads a perilously thin line between inspiration and wholesale rip-off. A generous view would be that Mullen (Below Her Mouth) and screenwriter Ryan Christopher Churchill are paying homage to Dick, Isaac Asimov and other giants of sci-fi literature with their tale of androids gone amok. But it takes only the thinnest of scratches to the film’s robotic surface to see Simulant for what it actually is: a sometimes confused and always lazy pastiche of warmed-over ideas about humanity, technology and What It All Really Means. More artificial, less intelligence.
Messily weaving in three separate storylines – as if the filmmakers could not quite decide either which character to focus on, or perhaps which actor was better known internationally to goose foreign sales – Simulant starts off looking at the fabulously rich couple Evan (Robbie Amell) and Faye (Jordana Brewster). She’s an artist, he’s a … something. Any way, the pair live in a future where androids named Simulants are the norm, with early versions used as domestic help but increasingly advanced models substituted for friends, lovers, companions.
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The Simulants must follow a modified version of Asimov’s laws of robotics – don’t injure humans, obey orders, etc. – but are slowly developing their own sentience. Uh-oh, right? I mean, potentially! In a different, far more interesting movie, that is. The problem is that Simulant’s filmmakers have no real clue where to take this wholly-completely-totally-original scenario, settling for a wan dystopian spectacle whose thrills are as low-rent as the film’s production values. (Telefilm contributed $1.5-million in production costs – plus $281,700 in development and marketing – but it seems that most of the money was spent on inserting cheap-looking CGI billboards onto desolate Hamilton street corners, as if Ridley Scott were being held hostage by the CBC.)
The film messily weaves in three separate storylines, including one involving a hacker, played by Simu Liu, who is itching to foment a robot uprising.
You can see where this is all going once Evan and Faye get into a nasty car crash early on, with one half of the couple waking up shortly thereafter having no idea of what just happened. Hmm. What makes someone truly human? It is a question that not only Evan and Faye must now reckon with, but also one faced by two other stick-thin characters pulled into the action: a grizzled anti-android cop named Kessler (Sam Worthington) who is especially fond of his tuque, and Casey (Simu Liu) a wildly tattooed hacker who is itching to foment a robot uprising. Or maybe Casey is just trying to rescue the memory of his captive Simulant lover, played by Alicia Sanz? No, wait, Sanz actually plays two characters. Twin robots! I think?
I’ll be honest: I don’t quite remember all the details, nor should you care to find out, given how sloppy and patched together so much of Simulant feels. This is a film that reveals crucial plot information via newscast background noise, and whose idea of “the future” involves cars with CD players, ostensibly slick corporate headquarters located in barren industrial zones and outdoor markets where people sell old computer monitors and traffic lights for nostalgic kicks, I guess?
Ultimately, you will walk out of Simulant (assuming you choose to walk in) feeling magnificently, stupendously depressed. Partially because real-deal movie stars like Brewster (Fast and Furious), Worthington (Avatar: The Way of Water), and Liu (Shang-Chi) were somehow compelled/tricked into making this movie, forced to utter lines involving “the sentiment analysis of the other precepts.” Partially because the only amusement you might wring from the film’s 95 minutes involve wondering why the producers just didn’t title the movie Simu-Lant.
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But mostly you will feel sad about the strange state of Canadian genre cinema, and how anyone could have possibly been excited about making such a lifeless, dare I say mechanical, thing as this. Unplug the electric sheep, and send Simulant back for a factory recall.