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“Simulant,” a sci-fi murder mystery about humanoid robots and a potential robot uprising, has something that many other cheap “Blade Runner” and “I, Robot” rip-offs don’t: a clear sense that the loss of life, artificial or otherwise, should be sorrowful. When characters die in "Simulant," the movie’s creeping pace and dramatic inertia seem a little more tolerable. Slow down and look at this, the makers of “Simulant” suggest whenever characters are either dying or facing their own mortality—this should hurt.

These big moments aren’t impressive enough to make “Simulant” more than the bargain bin sci-fi pastiche it obviously is. But there’s some appreciable consideration shown to the movie’s Simulants, or Replicant-like synthetic humans, which gives a slight edge to this otherwise unconvincing robo-noir ripoff.

Shameless and sleepy from scene one, “Simulant” begins with an Isaac Asimov-cribbed list of robot commandments that must be obeyed by all Simulants, an already socially integrated group of people-presenting robots. These four precepts are simple enough and hard-wired into the coding of every Simulant, basic stuff like you can’t kill a human, and you must obey human laws.

A low-stakes chase ensues: Esme (Alicia Sanz) slowly gets away from government Agent Kessler (Sam Worthington), a robot-hunting dick working for the quasi-omnipotent Artificial Intelligence Compliance Enforcement agency. Kessler, unlike jaded sci-fi fans, is amazed that Esme could not only (momentarily) run away from him, but also disobey and even physically wound him. What is going on with these Simulants? A bland guy investigates.

Meanwhile, another tale of the too-familiar future unfolds: dutiful but confused wife guy Evan (Robbie Amell) chases after his rich and very busy wife Faye (Jordana Brewster). He remembers surviving a car crash but can’t recall much more; she doesn’t want to talk about it but soon must. A little more than 20 minutes into the movie, we, too, learn Faye and Evan’s dark secret: he’s a Simulant of the real Evan, who died vehicularly. This canned revelation at least explains the weird tension between Evan and Faye (it’s not like it used to be, baby!). Evan’s discovery also inadvertently leads him to the shady Casey Rosen (Simu Liu), a Simulant expert who’s clearly not as harmless as he appears.

(A MILD, BUT NECESSARY SPOILER) Eventually, Kessler’s search for answers leads him to Casey, but not before he watches Esme get re-programmed against her wishes. Director April Mullen and writer Ryan Christopher Churchill understandably dwell on this traumatic event because if Esme is more human than even tough-talking Kessler thinks, her feelings are not only “zeros and ones,” as he puts it. This scene’s probably the most impressive in the movie, not only because it’s affecting but also because it’s a clear declaration of intent. The makers of “Simulant” want you to imagine, despite all of our generic foreknowledge, that this robot’s pain matters.

The rest of the movie isn’t as consequential because neither Evan nor Kessler’s dovetailing investigations really open up their characters or world in a major way. These guys ask the right questions, slowly and in visually flat medium close-ups, but they don’t pose deeper follow-ups, like what does it mean “to be more free” if you can only get that freedom by disobeying rules that were designed to protect other sentient peoploids?

Both Esme’s destruction and Evan’s discovery only lead them back to Casey, a human plot device who talks generally about the necessity of hacking Simulants, so that they, too, can make their own decisions. But Kessler’s involvement doesn’t really matter, except to get to the next plot point, and Evan keeps hitting the same emotional wall whenever he seeks closure from his increasingly uncomfortable partner. Even Esme’s virtual death, represented in an appropriately chilly scene that contrasts Sanz’s tearful pleading with a cold computer programmer’s methodical deletion of Esme’s core memories, doesn’t cut deep enough. There are hints of a deeper movie here, but the one on-screen sticks too closely to stories and ideas we already know.

An ambiguous ending, which hilariously ends with a long, hard leer at a naked woman’s backside, also isn’t ambiguous enough, and the movie’s already numbed protagonists only face dilemmas that reflect commercial stagnation instead of whatever the post-human condition might look like. There are spikes of emotional intensity throughout, but their visceral impact is negligible, given so many hand-me-down genre tropes. So when Casey tells Evan that abandoning his core robo-precepts would make Evan free of his programming “restraints,” it’s hard not to agree with Evan when he replies: “I don’t actually know what that means.” Casey tries to clarify, and Evan paraphrases him for us: he would be “more human” if he were liberated from his core precepts, but again: huh? “Simulant” never goes anywhere unexpected, making it hard to appreciate its creators’ unusual sensitivity.

Now playing in theaters. 

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Film Credits

Simulant movie poster

Simulant (2023)

Rated NR

95 minutes


Robbie Amell as Evan

Jordana Brewster as Faye

Simu Liu as Casey

Sam Worthington as Kessler

Alicia Sanz as Esmé

Mayko Nguyen as Michiko Higashi

Masa Lizdek as Lisa

Christine L. Nguyen as Ying Hong

Emmanuel Kabongo as Joshua

Samantha Helt as Morgan






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