A star is…digitized.
Writer/director Andrew Niccol enjoys playing with our heads. In his directorial debut, Gattaca, Niccol made us consider the essence of humanity. In The Truman Show, which the New Zealand native wrote and produced, he got us doubting the nature of reality. With his latest mindbender, S1m0ne, Niccol blends these two themes and forces the questions: What is a real human? Can you always recognize one when you see one? How about when you don't?
Facts of the Case
Alfred Hitchcock was often credited with saying, "Actors are cattle." Nonsense, scoffed Hitch: "What I probably said was that actors should be treated like cattle."
Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino, Insomnia) understands exactly what the Master of Suspense meant. He's fed up with prima donna movie stars like Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder from Mr. Deeds, who can't even steal a scene here), who has stalked off the set of Viktor's latest film citing "creative differences"—most of which relate to the size of her 50-foot Airstream trailer and the annoying presence of cherry-flavored Mike 'n' Ikes in her candy dish. With the star out of the picture, Viktor's studio boss—and ex-wife—Elaine Christian (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich) cancels Viktor's contract and boots him off the lot.
As if by magic, one-eyed Hank Aleno (an uncredited Elias Koteas, still searching for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) appears, babbling that he has the software solution to Viktor's problem. "A 'synthespian,'" scoffs Viktor—that CGI stuff will never work. No, insists Hank—a "vactor," a virtual actor, and it will work. Skeptical Viktor brushes the übergeek aside. But a few days later, Hank is dead, and his last will and testament leaves the out-of-work director his magnum opus: Simulation One, handily abbreviated "Simone" (Niccol's wife Rachel Roberts, anonymous in the theatrical release but credited on the DVD).
Nine months later, Viktor's film Sunrise, Sunset is a smash hit, thanks to his "discovery," the publicity-shy Simone. How long will the suddenly successful moviemaker be able to hide from a fawning press and celebrity-struck public the fact that the hottest starlet in pictures is merely a sophisticated fake? (Come to think of it, how does that make Simone any different from half the A-list actresses in Tinseltown?)
Andrew Niccol hoodwinked the Judge this time.
No, not about the unreality of his "virtual actress," but about the direction of his plot. When I first heard the premise of S1m0ne, I yawned. At best, I expected a high-tech twist on My Fair Lady; at worst, a fancy-dress spin on Boxing Helena. Niccol's previous work elicited high expectations—I admired Gattaca, and I found the Peter Weir-helmed The Truman Show worthwhile despite the gooseflesh-inducing Jim Carrey. But another story about a desperate man in love with an unattainable woman…even a talented guy like Niccol couldn't make that interesting.
But he never has to. Because that isn't what S1m0ne is about. Instead, it's an understated and delightfully subversive view of stardom and beauty and the whole concept of identity. Because Simone is, after all, really Viktor Taransky. She speaks only when he speaks for her. She moves only when he taps a few keys. Simone is the director's dream actor not because she follows instructions perfectly, but because she needs no instruction—she emotes at the director's will. Hitchcock would have loved her. (The fact that she's an icy blonde wouldn't have hurt either.)
The anticipated love story between man and megabyte never materializes. Viktor doesn't obsess over Simone—he understands perfectly well she's a fiction. His interest in her relates only to her impact on his heretofore-foundering career. The obsession lies not with Viktor but with the filmgoing public, so rabid in its hunger for the Next Big Thing that it will readily devour whatever that Thing turns out to be. This cult of celebrity is embodied with hilarity throughout the film by tabloid journalist Max Sayer, played with scene-munching gusto by Pruitt Taylor Vince (best known as the sex-fantasy-driven pharmacist in Mumford). In a wickedly funny scene, Max invades the hotel suite where Simone supposedly is staying.
Alone in a room he believes his idol has recently inhabited, Max caresses Simone's toilet seat, lolls in empassioned bliss amid her bedsheets, and even kisses her toothbrush. Don't you just know that half the readership of People Magazine would do the same, given the chance?
Niccol executes his potentially ridiculous tale with charm and gentle wit. His funhouse-mirror version of Hollywood (courtesy of production designer Jan Roelfs, who also realized the stark near-future of Gattaca) abounds with lush color and slightly off-center style under the graceful camera work of veteran Edward Lachman (Far From Heaven, Erin Brockovich) and high-definition video specialist Derek Grover. Carter Burwell's subtle score sets just the right tone of ethereal splendor. And the technical marvels that transform the real-life Rachel Roberts into the computer-generated Simone are impressive—Simone, rumor has it, digitally incorporates visual elements of such screen legends as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, and Grace Kelly, speech characteristics borrowed from Lauren Bacall and Ernest Borgnine (!), and sings with the vocal chops of Mary J. Blige.
Al Pacino is as dialed-back here as I've ever seen him—I kept waiting for one of his typical over-the-top explosions, but no soap. Instead, Pacino brings a soft-focus desperation and world-weariness to his beleaguered character, who just wants the industry to acknowledge his talent. I couldn't help feeling that Pacino was simply wrong for this part—we know too much about Big Al at this stage of his career to accept him as a pathetic, opportunistic loser. Steve Buscemi or Albert Brooks would have been exactly right.
The flesh-and-blood supporting cast is fine, though (a commendation I'm sure the Screen Actors Guild will receive with a sigh of relief). Catherine Keener is nicely ambivalent as the Sherry Lansing clone who can't decide how she feels about her former husband. Evan Rachel Wood (the precocious daughter in the TV dramas Once and Again and Profiler) turns in a pitch-perfect, not-too-precious performance as Taransky's dutiful offspring. Supermodel-turned-actress Rebecca Romijn-Stamos—as close to a real-life Simone as you're likely to encounter—shines in a deft and funny cameo as Simone's dim-bulb stand-in. And for what little the role requires, novice thespian Roberts displays remarkable charisma as our virtual heroine.
Despite the fact that S1m0ne languished for more than a year on the studio's shelves before its theatrical release, New Line treats the film with a stylish DVD presentation. Both video and audio are spectacular—the film looks terrific, and with Dolby Digital EX 5.1 and DTS options, it sounds every bit as great. The lively anamorphic transfer sparkles with color, without a single print error or digital flaw I could detect. Contrasts are razor-sharp, and both blacks and bright hues are spot-on. The soundtrack affords pleasant variety, while doing a particularly noteworthy job of featuring the score. All the dialogue is clean and tight. (A quibble or two, however. The film offers no foreign language subtitles—too bad for our friends north or south of the border—and the English captions can only be activated from the main menu.)
Two production featurettes comprise the appetizers in terms of supplemental content. The first documentary, Cyber Stardom, is a fairly routine eight-minute mix of interviews and backstage footage involving most of the major creative participants. Featurette two, Simulating Simone (6:50), hones in more specifically on the digital trickery used in bringing the title character to…well…not life, but something like it.
A whopping smorgasbord of 19 deleted scenes is your meat and potatoes—these can be accessed individually, or from within the film using a branching option. The branching seemed rather slow and cumbersome, but the fact that one can fit the clips into the places in the film from which they were excised is a bonus. Some of these extra sequences are as good as anything left in the final cut. I especially enjoyed the comic bit where the sleazoid Sayer confronts Viktor with an obviously senile old woman whom he purports to be Simone's abandoned mother.
Two trailers, a teaser and the full theatrical version, are presented in anamorphic widescreen. The teaser better captures the flavor of the film—the complete trailer, with its pedestrian narration, doesn't do the movie justice. And why doesn't every DVD have credits as extensive as the ones on this disc?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Andrew Niccol sneaks in a number of sly, blink-and-you'll-miss-it references throughout the film. The character names Niccol chooses are particularly clever. Winona Ryder's spoiled-brat star is dubbed "Nicola Anders," a reverse twist on the writer/director's own name. Many of the other "actor" characters have names drawn from the digital world: "Hal Sinclair," "Mac Cray," "Claris Commodore," "Corel," "Lotus," "Hewlett" and "Lisa" being a few I scribbled down as they flew past.
Perhaps we're not as far from the reality of S1m0ne as we'd like to believe.
Better than you'd think, S1m0ne is low-key and subtle, but jam-packed with nifty little touches that will appeal to the cineaste more than the casual video viewer. In a sense, S1m0ne is the reverse of Niccol's screenplay for The Truman Show. In the earlier film, Truman Burbank was a real person living in a made-for-TV universe that everyone knew was a fabrication—except Truman. Here Simone's world is all too real, but she is not—and no one knows the truth except her puppeteer.
S1m0ne manages to make us laugh while leaving us with a new uneasiness about what we see on the silver screen. Upload S1m0ne to your DVD collection, while it's still only a movie.
The Court finds S1m0ne not guilty on all counts, with the exception of impersonating an actress. And even there, the evidence is circumstantial. She's free to go merrily on her digital way. (Leave that diskette with the bailiff, Mr. Niccol. The Judge will…examine it in greater detail in chambers.)
Simulation terminated. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Documentary Featurette: Cyber Stardom
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