S1M0NE has fallen victim to Box-Office Curse #17: People won’t go see movies about moviemaking. In this case, they’ve missed a compelling little fable from Andrew Niccol, whose artistic success, to these eyes, has been in inverse proportion to his box-office success: He wrote and directed 1997’s superb Gattaca, and wrote 1998’s overrated but lucrative The Truman Show (Peter Weir directed). S1M0NE is going the way of Gattaca‘s brief life in uncrowded theaters, and while it’s not on the level of Niccol’s debut, it’s entertaining and provocative enough.

The first mistake some critics have made is to assume that S1M0NE is intended as a satire of the Hollywood and media machines. I don’t think it is; the movie should really be called Viktor, after its protagonist Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), a pompous and flailing film director whose mega-starlet leading lady (Winona Ryder in an amusing, if ill-timed for her defense, performance) has walked out on his latest production due to “creative differences.” Growls Viktor, “Here’s the difference: I’m creative, you’re not.” The movie half-yearns for the days when directors, not stars, called the shots, though this yearning is placed in the mouth of Viktor, who overlooks the fact that in the old days studio heads called the shots and directors were as powerless and interchangeable as the stars.

Computer wingnut Elias Koteas delivers Viktor’s salvation on a platter (literally) — a disc containing programming to create a virtual actress. Yes, the technology is finally there, and only Viktor knows about it. After nine months he’s created the perfect actress, Simone (Rachel Roberts), and plugged her into the role originally filled by his former female lead. Everyone loves Simone; the movie is a massive critical and popular hit, soon joined by another Taransky/Simone epic, and Simone becomes the first actress in Oscar history to tie with herself for Best Actress.

S1M0NE isn’t about media manipulation, though Niccol shows us plenty of it. Two reporters (Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman) devote themselves to uncovering the truth about the never-seen-in-the-flesh Simone; studio head Elaine Christian (Catherine Keener), who’s also Viktor’s ex-wife, wants to meet the star who’s made her so much richer. Like any good program, Simone does exactly what Viktor tells her to do; she never malfunctions (except for some pixillation due to insufficient memory during a satellite interview), and everything is perfect. Too perfect. Pacino plays Viktor subtly as an artistic windbag who grows to resent his own creation’s stealing his thunder. Even his attempts to unmake her — there’s a pretty funny clip from I Am Pig, supposedly Simone’s “directorial debut” starring herself — just enhance her popularity.

“You have something I don’t have,” the computer geek tells Viktor: “an eye.” So does Niccol, whose cinematographer (the noted Edward Lachman) gives the movie the warm yet deceptive glaze of digital enchantment. Both Gattaca and S1M0NE look far more ravishing than their stories absolutely demand, especially since both movies unfold almost exclusively indoors. Niccol also comes up with a great moment of sad beauty: when Viktor second-guesses himself and pulls the plug on Simone, she disappears, literally bit by bit (or byte by byte), from his screen, a flurry of flesh-colored pixels, leaving her left eye to linger for a moment in mute, vaguely accusatory mid-stare before it, too, disappears. (The movie is certainly ocularly obsessed: the computer geek has an inoperable eye tumor, and at the end of his alleyway scene with Viktor we see stagehands in the background moving a large backdrop with an eye painted on it.)

On the surface, the movie appears to be another cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for, but under the surface we find a metaphor for fear of success on the wrong terms — selling out. Or, worse, getting the power to rise to your level of incompetence. We also see clips from Viktor’s movies, and they’re made to look gruesomely pretentious and melodramatic. Even the second one, based on a script he wrote nine years ago (“It’s close to my heart”), looks terrible even though you figure the studio wouldn’t have interfered to make it that way. By then, Viktor has enough clout to do what he wants — he made it that way.

That Viktor’s two banal Simone movies are insanely successful, and that Simone branches off into advertising and recording, are probably Niccol’s comments on what an increasingly numbed and uncritical public will accept as a diversion. But at the movie’s heart is an artist’s self-critique. Niccol could have told his three stories to date in novel form, blank verse, whatever; he chose to tell them in a medium that celebrates and rewards mediocrity more and more with each passing year. But if artists quit the medium in disgust, mediocrity wins. Like Viktor, Niccol knows how corrupt the game is, but he’s willing to stay in it anyway, and he plays honorably.

Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, science fiction, underrated

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