Wifelike is the type of science fiction with just enough thematic novelty to compel the viewer, but not enough to make for a satisfying experience.
On its surface, new thriller Wifelike looks like yet another derivative slice of sci-fi filled with coma-inducing philosophical ramblings about the state of humanity in the 21st century and beyond. Here, A.I. has become an everyday part of life, with the titular technology company producing a high-tech robot that can take the place of those pesky females who have such gnarly human defects as emotions and agency. But writer-director James Bird has a few thematic surprises up his sleeve, even as the overall execution proves more than a tad problematic.
In some unspecified future, William (Jonathan Rhys Myers) is a seasoned police detective who specializes in capturing rogue A.I., because Bird is nothing if not a clear Blade Runner stan. It seems there’s a violent contingency that opposes the work of the Wifelike Corporation, who view the company’s creations as sex slaves and indentured servants who deserve both autonomy and basic human rights. Yet, therein lies the rub: are these not mere machines, created by man? You know, what does it mean to be human? Also, if all of these robots are banding together and staging violent uprisings, why is most of the world population on their side? Is this not just another form of Skynet all over again? Alas, all such details are glossed over for the most part, seemingly because Bird is instead prioritizing showing lots of sexy time with his female A.I.
William owns his own Wifelike companion, modeled after his deceased beloved, Meredith (Elena Kampouris). As the film opens, William is bringing home yet another upgraded version, one whose memory has recently been erased for reasons unclear. Indeed, the first 15 minutes of Wifelike are devoted to William adjusting Meredith’s various settings, which Bird clearly believes establishes some kind of authenticity but which merely inspires distraction. Before long, William and Meredith are screwing like rabbits, with the central plot going AWOL for long stretches, because watching Kampouris parade around in barely-there lingerie while sticking out both her chest and her ass seems to be of the utmost artistic importance.
But it’s at the midway point that Wifelike takes a curious twist. Instead of sexy shenanigans or any ethical questioning of A.I., the film shifts its focus to the ruling one percent, both to the individuals who created these advancements and those who prosper from them. On this count, Bird certainly gets one thing correct: such technology would only be available to those with fantastically deep pockets, and who are prone to leverage their power in rather nefarious ways. In essence, the film questions the humanity not of its robotic creations, but of those who deem them such a necessary part of life. That’s not to say that similar films of varying intelligence and quality, like Ex Machina and Chappie, have fail to address such themes, but that this particular topic has simply never been centered in this way, only left as a cursory footnote in one robot’s journey to self-discovery. Meredith certainly discovers her agency, but the film would much rather focus on William’s motivations, or the messiah-like CEO of the Wifelike Corporation, who is only seen in hologram. “You know why the self-driving car failed?” he asks at one point. “Because men like to be in control. The robotic soldier failed because men like to kill, and Wifelike is successful because men like to fuck.” Hardly enlightening stuff, but such a narrative wrinkle is welcome in a subgenre that has become as stale as this particular one.
Unfortunately, Wifelike is too sleazy by half, especially in its first hour, which feels more like one of those late night Skinemax flicks from the late ‘90s than a thoughtful bit of science fiction. As the film’s focus ultimately shifts into view, one begins to ponder if all that gratuitous sex and nudity was some sort of meta-commentary on men’s baser instincts. Then the film ends with a violent bout of vengeance and a ridiculous setup for a sequel that will surely never come to fruition, and it becomes clear that Bird is more concerned with genre thrills than anything resembling actual enlightenment. It doesn’t help that Rhys Meyers delivers a truly awful lead performance, somehow even more robotic than that of his co-star, each line delivery a low growl of machismo that could be regarded as satirical in another film, especially when paired with a wardrobe that looks like his character raided Diane Keaton’s closet, but nothing about it comes off as knowing. Kampouris, meanwhile, who was the best thing about such embarrassing duds as Men, Women and Children and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, learns the hard way that advancement in the lower echelons of Hollywood still means having to take your top off in every other scene, and that’s certainly asked of her here in spades. At the end of the day, Wifelike is the type of movie with just enough thematic novelty to compel the viewer, but not enough to actually make for a satisfying experience. Bird proves he is a more than competent filmmaker; let’s hope he can take that talent and actually do something of legitimate substance with it next time out.
Published as part of Before We Vanish — August 2022.