REVIEW: Stimulant

Stimulant is a 2023 Canadian science fiction/cyberpunk movie. It has strong vibes like the Channel 4/AMC show Humans as well as David Cage video game Detroit: Become Human. Basically, it has elements of Blade Runner but is more focused on it taking place in a near-future environment as well as the implications of sentient life versus action sequences. Nevertheless, it has a very noir feeling to it and the ending is surprisingly dark.

The story follows four protagonists with Kessler (Sam Worthington) as a member of AICE (Artificial Intelligence Compliance Enforcement), a painter named Faye (Jordana Brester), Faye’s husband Evan (Robbie Amell), and a simulant repairman named Casey (Simu Liu). There is also a young simulant named Esme who comes in a variety of models and plays a role in each of their lives to a certain extent.

The premise is that Faye’s husband, Evan, died in a car wreck recently but she had previously “backed him up” as part of a life insurance plan with both herself as well as him. The idea was meant to provide them both a kind of immortality as well as give each other a chance to renew their lives together. However, Faye finds herself creeped out by her reincarnated husband rather than reassured. It doesn’t help that he can’t disobey her and is obsessive with her love due to being programmed as, essentially, her security blanket.

Simultaneously, Kessler is nonplussed by capturing a Simulant, Esme, that shows a far greater degree of self-awareness than normal. Having a deep distrust of Simulants due to his son dying because of one being left as a babysitter, Kessler struggles between his empathy versus a belief that Simulants represent an existential threat to humanity. Watching him fail to reconcile these points is arguably the highlight of the film.

Eventually, Evan and Kessler’s plotline intersect when Faye drives Evan out of her house and into the arms of a Simulant repairman, Casey. Casey wants nothing more than to free Evan from his precepts that force him to obey humans, though, and is plotting a massive hack of the world’s other advanced androids. Evan is not interested in the revolution that Casey proposes, though, and just wants to figure out how to win over his wife. The fact he’s a clone of a dead man not really registering as a reason their relationship is doomed.

What follows is a cat and mouse game that could have been very stereotypical but goes in a lot of surprising directions. Typically, there’s no doubt that the humans and robots are the same. There’s something distinctly “off” about them and just how messed up Evan is by the exploitative and weird system in place is clear from the beginning. Kessler may have a point that Simulants are dangerous and “freeing” them as Casey wants may not be a liberating act but just a grand mistake–especially when we find out he used to believe they needed much larger numbers of restrictions.

Ultimately, the movie suffers for the fact that there’s a lot going on and not enough time to focus on any one character given the runtime. It feels less like a single coherent narrative than two reasonably well-done Black Mirror episodes shoved together. Kessler’s story about bonding with Esme versus his own hatred of Simulants versus Evan being a creepy substitute to a dead man who doesn’t know why “his” wife doesn’t love him anymore. Sadly, they’re already two very good stories. One is called Blade Runner and the other is the Black Mirror episode, “Be Right Back”, starring Hayley Atwell. Which, bluntly, are both better by a large margin.

Robbie Ammell is a better actor than his brother, Stephen, but the movie doesn’t let him display much of his comic skill that is in the Amazon show Upload. He manages to display a creepiness and general mixture of likable everyman with “Nice Guy” that is maybe going to stab you if you say no to coffee. Sam Worthington really is the MVP of the movie, though.

While he’s basically just playing a discount Rick Deckard, Worthington does a really good job of it, and I really wanted him to have more time on screen. It’s not even that the movie needed to be two separate movies but at an 1:30:00, it’s already a brisk inoffensive breeze but could have gotten some real teeth with an extra thirty minutes. Just some more scenes of Evan and Faye or Kessler and Esme would have gone a long way to upping the emotional stakes.

If it sounds like I’m saying the movie is pretty much just “okay” then, yes, you have my opinion on the film. It’s probably a two and a half or three-star sort of film. It feels very much closer to television than film. However, I give the credit and state that the unexpected darkness of the film was surprising and welcome. A more uplifting film would have chosen to go with the idea that Kessler overcome his prejudice to fall in love with Esme or that Evan would either let go of his obsession with his wife. Neither do and go instead in much more interesting directions. So, I’m going to give this the stamp of recommended for someone wanting an “okay” cyberpunk film for an afternoon’s or evening’s watching.

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CT Phipps

CT Phipps

C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He's the author of Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, Lucifer's Star, Straight Outta Fangton, and The Supervillainy Saga. He is also a frequent contributor to Grimdark Magazine.