What does it mean to be alive?
On the surface, it feels like an easy question. After all, we know what it means to be wake up in the morning and go about our day. But, in a world of artificial intelligence, do we really understand anymore where the lines of life and reality are drawn? These questions lie at the heart of April Mullen’s new sci-fi adventure, Simulant, a film that wants to blur the lines between man and machine in the hopes of finding the soul of humanity in the process.
Simulant tells the story of Faye (Jordana Brewster), a woman newly widowed after her husband, Evan (Robbie Amell), is killed in a car crash. Devastated by the loss, Faye purchases a Simulant, an exact robotic replica who has been programmed with Evan’s personality and memories. When Faye struggles to love Sim Evan, she accepts the help of Casey (Simu Liu), a programmer who helps hide her android from authorities. However, Casey also works hard to ‘unmaster’ Evan, invigorating his soul (if he has one).
Directed by April Mullen, Simulant is a small movie with a big cast and even bigger ideas. Taking cues from Blade Runner, The Matrix and other sci-fi classics, the film feels familiar at first. Nevertheless, Simulant’s original take on artificial intelligence and its relationship to mankind makes it fresh. For Mullen, the highest value seems to be equality and autonomy, even as it extends to our machine counterparts. What’s more, she accentuates this idea visually through her use of colour. By muting the tone of her hues, she cools the human world, draining it of life. However, as her AI’s are awakened, the colours begin to warm. For Mullen, freedom is life and we feel it onscreen.
While performances in the film are fairly solid, the most enthusiastic members of its cast are Amell and Liu. As Evan, Amell has an innocence about him that works well for the untethered AI. However, as he awakens, a creeping shadow begins to lurk behind his eyes that reveals an inner darkness. Juxtaposed with Liu’s confident, energetic and very self-aware performance as Casey, the relationship between the two characters breathes life into the film.
Instead of the more traditional ‘fear of technology’ that we’ve seen all-too-often onscreen, Mullen provides a more sympathetic approach to the AI Revolution. Rather than emphasize the destructive power of robotics, the film leans into its potential to co-exist with humanity. In short, Simulant depicts a world where its androids want (or even deserve) to be set free.
These bots may have been created to serve us, that doesn’t mean they are our servants.
In fact, although AI has been perfected to meet their needs, humanity seems almost selfish in their desire to control their creation. Even if their bodies may consist of computer chips and wiring, Simulants such as Evan believe that they aren’t any different than their human counterparts. Although he’s been programmed emotionally, his love for Faye feels authentic.
In this way, Simulant speaks to the question of what it means to live. As Casey seeks to ‘unmaster’ Evan, Casey wants to open up the world to him. In Simulant, it’s the machines who need to be awakened, instead of mankind. (Think of it as a reverse Matrix of sorts.) By freeing Evan’s database, Casey believes that he can help him understand what it means to be human. As Evan experiences love, compassion and sacrifice for the first time, he begins to see his true value as the equivalent of those born of flesh and bone. His memories and feelings create a sense of value within him.
Suddenly, Evan believes that he has found a soul.
It’s these sorts of conversations about the nature of life that make Simulant truly stimulating. Are the lines between man and machine clearly defined or have we given away that exclusivity to life in the name of progress? Do our memories and feelings make us human or is it something other intangible to be unlocked? These are the questions that drive Simulant, forcing us free our own minds in the process.
Simulant is available in theatres on Friday, April 7th, 2023.