Digital diva: S1m0ne is an unnatural woman
It's pretty obvious that the brilliant mind behind S1m0ne is the same one that was responsible for The Truman Show. Directing this time as well as producing and writing, Andrew Niccol has given us another satire of pop culture that's at once perceptive and preceptive. It's about our obsession with entertainment and what some people will do to feed our hunger for it.
Niccol was ahead of the curve with Truman's take on the reality show mania that didn't become really intense until a couple years after its release. This time his subject is "synthespians," or "virtual actors"– "vactors," someone calls them for short.
It's not a totally new concept. We've been seeing dead actors in commercials for years; actors are used to fight monsters that will be inserted later; and last year's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which was classified as an animated film, used a totally simulated cast (you might say "simulcast," except that has another meaning).
Well, Final was just the beginning. We knew those actors weren't real, but Niccol asks us to accept a vactor so realistic she becomes a huge star. And no one but her director knows she exists only in a computer.
The director in question is Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), a terminally arty type still living on memories of having worked with John Cassavetes in New York. He touts his "two Academy Award nominations" without mentioning they were for short subjects. And when he has to deal with temperamental divas like Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder, the best she's been in years), "a supermodel with a SAG card," he longs for the day when moguls had stars under contract and controlled their lives.
"You're nostalgic for an era you weren't even born in," says Elaine (Catherine Keener), his ex-wife and the head of the studio he's working for– or was working for until Sunrise Sunset fell apart and she had to fire him.
Viktor's career is saved by Hank Aleno, a dying computer geek who's developed software, Simulation One, that's the answer to Viktor's problem with out-of-control divas. Nine months later the movie premieres and a star who was never born is born: Simone.
Her acceptance by the public exceeds Viktor's wildest expectations, but the longer the deception continues, the harder it becomes for him to end it. For a moment it seems as if he will fall in love with his own creation, but that soon passes. Since the computer essentially converts Viktor's words and actions into Simone's, you might say she represents his feminine side, and more might have been done with that idea.
Late in the film, Niccol gives in to two formulaic impulses, but by then it's too late to do much harm. One is the dogged journalist (Pruitt Taylor Vince, assisted by Jason Schwartzman) determined to learn the truth about Simone, the other is the possibility that Simone will be a catalyst to reunite Viktor and Elaine romantically.
Pacino continues the return to form that began with Insomnia, but Keener, so good this year in Lovely & Amazing and Full Frontal, is neither hard enough to run a studio nor soft enough as a love interest. It's as if she never really grasps the character.
As for Simone, well, what can you say? I might point out that she doesn't do her own singing; it's dubbed by Mary J. Blige. Stick around after the credits for a making-of scene that reveals a little bit about how Simone works.
When word of this project first began circulating, rumors spread through Hollywood that the days of live actors were numbered. That may be true, but the numbers are at least four or five digits. From what we see of Simone, she still can't interact closely with living co-stars (although in an all-digital cast that shouldn't be a problem), and the instant proficiency of the technologically challenged Viktor is hardly believable.
But S1m0ne isn't supposed to be a documentary. It comes close enough to credibility to make it arguably the best Hollywood satire since Sunset Boulevard, and it wouldn't be a bad idea if some actors took it as a wake-up call.