In the movie world, since the very beginning, artificial intelligence and the threats to humanity when it comes to technology have been explored through several mediums. One of the first movies to delve into these subjects was the German classic Metropolis, which is still well-loved today as one of the original science fiction movies, but it also marked the very first-time artificial intelligence appeared on a screen.
Many years later, the likes of Star Wars, Blade Runner, and so many more have shown an explosion in the popularity of technology in cinema. In 2023, the beginnings of the realities depicted on the screen might be coming towards everyday consumers in the wealthy world, especially as concepts like ChatGPT expand and are built upon.
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But in the Canadian film Simulant, the foundations laid by previous movies and television shows are explored once again. The movie, which is directed by April Mullen, stars Robbie Arnell, Jordana Brewster, Simu Liu, Sam Worthington, and Alicia Sanz. It was released in its native Canada before expanding to a United States release in June 2023.
Set in a world where artificial intelligence, technology, and simulations are commonplace, and robots are walking the streets alongside regular humans, it seems all too easy for someone to purchase an android or robot to help out around the home. But avid fans of the genre might already be aware of this well-known fact: be careful what you wish for. When the robots learn human emotions, they might revolt and reverse the power dynamics.
A World of Simulations and Regulation
Simulant opens with a tragedy: the protagonist, Faye (Jordana Brewster), is recently widowed. Faye is not coping with the circumstances of her husband Evan’s sudden death, especially because she survived the accident that claimed his life. In this film’s world, humanoids and androids are a very real concept – the couple even has one that makes their breakfast each morning. This mix of robots and contemporary living proves to be very convenient for Faye, as she ends up acquiring a simulant that’s intended to replace her deceased husband.
However, the new version of Evan is struggling with the circumstances of the original Evan’s death, as he keeps having flashbacks to the accident that killed him. He isn’t aware at first that he is a simulant, so when he finds out about the truth, it crushes him. At first, he thought he was a regular human and the original Evan, but this knowledge leads him to go out and try to discover the meaning of what it means to be human.
But as the camera cuts away from Faye and Evan’s situation and towards the world outside, where holograms dictate the merits of living forever as a simulant and the streets are full of them, it quickly becomes obvious that larger issues are coming into play about all of this.
When the camera looks away from Faye and Evan and towards Aaron Kessler (Sam Worthington), who works for a government agency called AICE (Artificial Intelligence Compliance and Enforcement) a different context is provided. He’s first seen trying to apprehend a simulant on the run, and, as the audience learns early on with him, there have been entire groups of simulants that are breaking free of the control of their owners and living outside of the script set for them, even if it means attacking humans on the street.
A hacker is on the loose, allowing the simulants to discover the true range of human emotion and thought. After apprehending a simulant, he crosses paths with its neighbor, Casey Rosen (Simu Liu). As it turns out, Casey also knows Faye. Throughout the plot, these coincidences keep cropping up, and all the characters are linked together even when their connections don’t feel as organic. Evan’s pursuit to discover the meaning of his life, even if he is a humanoid simulation, puts him on a collision course with not only the wanted hacker on the loose but also a potential uprising and government crackdown happening behind the scenes.
Lowered Stakes and Predictable Situations
From the beginning, Simulant plays all of its cards early on, making it and its characters’ motives fairly predictable. Many of the characters are fairly static, their motivations straightforward. The most complex character is Liu’s Casey, who, with (or perhaps despite) his penchant for Russian literature and politics, manages to become a mastermind working against the system and society that’s set in place.
It takes a while to get to the thriller elements of the movie; the plot doesn’t get started until about 45 minutes into the movie when Evan is capable of going out and exploring the world on his terms. But even then, the stakes feel low. But even when the thriller elements are woven and introduced into the film, they feel nonexistent and move at a leisurely pace.
The core cast of the movie does an excellent job anchoring the subtext, bringing more life into the film, and creating something that is pretty watchable. Simulant runs for an hour and 35 minutes, which is the perfect length in the film’s current form. Although we come to understand the motives behind Evan’s actions and why he ends up making the decisions he does throughout the movie, the emotional payoff is poor for the viewer. As a character, he can be easily understood through his motives, but as the protagonist, there simply isn’t enough to make audiences care beyond the trope of how he’s a simulation trying to discover how to be more human after coming across a devastating revelation.
Each character weighs in on a different side of the arguments behind artificial intelligence and the increase of technology in everyday lives, but one thing Simulant fails to consider is the socioeconomic dynamics going into such decisions and purchases. The basics are laid out from the very beginning, but in the world of the movie, the characters come across as wealthy elites, or those who had, or have, positions of power and influential jobs and become disillusioned with the system as a whole.
There are plenty of missed opportunities for the script and story to explore what makes this world inside the film unique as a whole, besides the fancy visuals and repetitive government holograms sending out messages to the general populace.
Simulant Gets the Point Across
As artificial intelligence and its usage becomes more widespread throughout the world, serious ethical concerns have already come up. Whether it’s the writers’ strike in the United States, putting Hollywood on pause for an indefinite amount of time, or the endless possibilities that come with utilizing AI in the workplace, the news cycle and everyday conversations are increasingly becoming common about technological advancements.
Simulant dwells on the familiar anxieties about these subjects, testing the waters on themes and topics that have been a staple in the science fiction genre for over a hundred years now. There is not anything novel or completely groundbreaking in the territory the movie covers, but it still manages to tread these waters without feeling like it is completely like a rehash of another film.
The cinematography and visuals in the movie add another layer that makes the movie more compelling to watch throughout. Although there’s an underlying fondness for an overhead drone shot, some scenes, especially when combined with the more science fiction elements, add an element that makes it more interesting to watch.
However, the movie’s editing can be jarring and chaotic throughout, scenes tend to jump from one moment to a completely different character and plot elsewhere. And, perhaps, that might be what some describe the movie as a synthesized group of ideas stitched together to form a cohesive narrative, but lacking the execution that would elevate it to the next level.
By its end, Simulant gets the job done. It may not reinvent the wheel when it comes to the specific subgenre it lives within, but it is fairly effective in getting its points and message across throughout the run time. However, it becomes bogged down in the details, jumping from one character to the next to cram in all the subplots before it is too late. Sam Worthington’s character, Aaron Kessler, becomes victim to this; his character and narrative arc feels unnecessary at times, not adding as much value to the grand scheme of things. It’s a solid effort, but audiences might not be eager toward movies like this.
Simulant is out in theaters and on demand on June 2, 2023.
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