S1m0ne

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.

Cultural infamy: In 2002, screenwriter Andrew Niccol was on a roll, sort of. He penned and directed Gattaca in 1997, and followed it by writing and co-producing The Truman Show in 1998. Both films dealt with characters trapped in social infrastructures that value perfection over the shagginess of natural humanity. Their protagonists were consumed with the notion that there was something else out there. Something better, and more real. Gattaca took place in the future, and The Truman Show plopped viewers down into the center of an alternate reality. S1m0ne, Niccol’s writer-director-producer project, seemed poised to complete the de facto trifecta: a movie that applied an almost-plausible science-fiction concept to a present-day-reality scenario. Al Pacino plays Viktor Taransky, a visionary director sick of having to kiss actors’ asses, and pining for a time when the talent was merely a conduit for the director’s master vision. (Gentlemen, start your “Quite possibly autobiographical” counters.) So he finds a way to replace his star actress with a simulated woman whom he controls, but later finds out that he’s powerless to stop her. (Niccol later married Rachel Roberts, the actress who played said computer.)

The critical response was tepid at best: Metacritic has the film holding at 49/100, and Rotten Tomatoes is currently holding at 51 percent; it doesn’t get much more average than that. Some called it a brilliant satire; some felt not even the loveable Pacino could save this floundering project. In his review of the film, The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias said, “the best scenes play like Frankenstein revisited,” though he admits that, much like Simone herself, the story becomes too much for Niccol to control near the end. 

Curiosity factor: I came across this film doing research for a recent Where The Wild Things Are roundtable discussion, which included S1m0ne co-star Catherine Keener, and I wondered how S1m0ne had eluded me for so long. I’m a huge fan of The Truman Show, and I consider Gattaca one of those movies entertaining enough to watch whenever they happen to pop up on TV. I definitely wanted to see what this Niccol character had been up to. But even apart from all that, the premise sold me. I’ve always gotten a kick out of movies about “the horrors of technology,” particularly from the late ’90s and early ’00s. The silliness of people scampering about in fear of beep-boopy old computer equipment and MS-DOS command-line prompts is one of life’s greatest pleasures—especially when viewed from our contemporary perspective. I recently re-watched the 1995 Sandra Bullock “thriller” The Net, and delighted in the film’s constant reinforcement of the idea that when computers control every aspect of your life, you control nothing. I laughed, I cried, I Googled reviews of it and tweeted about it from my iPhone between rounds of Doodle Jump as I biked home. I felt S1m0ne had a high probability of being just as goofy—just look at those binary digits right there in the title!—and could be a nice addition to my “ironic mockery of outdated tech” shortlist. And given that the cast includes Pacino, Keener, a young Evan Rachel Wood, and Winona Ryder, there was a chance it might be well-acted as well.

The viewing experience: In order to get to the heart of S1m0ne, you first need to understand who this Viktor Taransky fella is. So we start by witnessing him obsessively going through a bowl of Mike & Ike candies, picking out all the red ones. An assistant comes up to interrupt him, and all he has to say is, “She’s…” to send Taransky into a nervous frenzy. “She’s walking, she’s walking,” he chants to himself as he scampers over to where Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder) is picking through wardrobe pieces she wants to keep. She’s the star of Taransky’s new picture, and she’s simply fed up!; she demanded the biggest trailer and got the longest one on the planet, but not the tallest one, by about an inch—how can she be expected to work under such strenuous conditions? Taransky begs her to stick around, even letting a little air out of the other trailer so Nicola’s can remain the tallest, but nothing can dissuade her. She just doesn’t get the film, and thinks no one will. And Taransky, seeing his future walk away with her, stands there and takes it. That is, until he finds out she went to the press—those vultures—at which point he snaps back, “Creative differences? The difference is, you’re not creative.”

Yeah, boom, roasted. But the problem is that without Nicola—or, rather, a star with her impressive cachet—the film isn’t going to happen. The studio executives tell Viktor they need a name to sell the picture, and the head of them all, Viktor’s ex-wife Elaine (Catherine Keener), says, “If the studio wants to be in the Nicola Anders business again, we need to cut our losses and shelve the picture.” Viktor can’t believe the studio would ever give in to star demands, especially one whose odd requests include no red Mike & Ikes, seven packs of cigarettes waiting for her in every room she goes into, with three of them opened, and a first-class seat for her nanny at every location shoot. (She doesn’t have kids.) They should be the ones kissing up to him, for he is a genius who will do anything it takes to get his film made, and the world will know the name of Viktor Taransky once and for all. But not today: He’s fired.

(It should be noted that we catch a quick glimpse of his movie in progress: a long-shot scene in a soaring bedroom, the music a swelling choral drone, and the film bathed in blue light. Sub out blue for yellow, and you’ve got most of Gattaca right there.)

That’s precisely when the answer to his prayers arrives: A crazy-pot named Hank (an uncredited Elias Koteas), spouting all sorts of frightening theories and delicious much-anticipated technobabble. He accosts Taransky in the alley behind the studio, claims he’s “licked every part of her,” then points out that the two have met before, at a conference eight years ago, where Hank delivered the keynote speech, “Who Needs Humans?” Hank hasn’t left his computer since that day, and he developed an eye tumor from all the “microwaves off the screen.” But it was all worth it, he claims, as he’s developed computer code that can replace any actor. And he needs Taransky’s “eye” to take the project further and actually insert a computer into a film. So he sucks up big time, and Taransky agrees to call him next week. Wait! It’ll be too late then, because the eye tumor is inoperable. Hank will be dead. “I’m already dead, Hank,” Taransky pipes back. And that is because… he is an artist.

And so is Niccol. Check out this snippet, and see if you can spot the symbolism among all the microwave rays:

Hank might have been a little nuts, but he wasn’t lying: A man comes to Taransky’s beach house in the next scene bearing a package from Hank—he’s dead now, and it was his final wish for Taransky to have this hard drive. What’s on it? Well, let’s throw that puppy into our standard-issue disk drive built especially for hard drives, and find out.

Yep, that is a program in which a computer-generated blonde—who Taransky names Simone, short for Simulation One—can be made to perform any movement, any facial expression, any vocal cadence. (There’s no clue as to why Hank had to lick someone, but such is the mystery of this cryptic film.) He later goes one step further and installs Simone into a three-monitor-deep supercomputer of sorts, with custom keys like “mimic” (Simone copies what Taransky does) and “loop” (her head rotates around for a while), and includes a clip library of every famous actress, so he can have a baseline for customizing Simone completely and fully. He uses that control to finish his film, replacing Nicola with Simone—marketed as a mysterious unknown actress—and screening the final product for the studio heads again. They weep, they love it so much, and Taransky is pleased. “Our ability to manufacture fraud exceeds our ability to detect it,” he coos to himself later on, alone with Simone.

Except… no. It’s easy at this point to be skeptical of the film’s entire premise, given what I know today. I mean, has anybody seen The Polar Express? The more realistic CGI tries to make its characters, the more creepy and unreal they look. The human eye is nature’s finest bullshit detector, yet somehow it fails for everyone who witnesses Simone onscreen. As a matter of fact, the filmmakers initially wanted to use an actual computer-generated actress to play Simone’s part, but instead they cast Roberts, an unknown, and made her look all computery in post-production. According to Wikipedia, the Screen Actors Guild was scared of setting foot on the slippery slope of CGI performers—soon, they figured, all actors might be replaced with computers, then Cylons—but I’m willing to bet that part of the reason was that the full-on computer wasn’t doing it for people. Still, this is the best they could do? Take a look at this shot from the fake film and tell me it doesn’t look like Dramatic Movie: The Videogame:

How ’bout that ending, eh?

It isn’t just the eye that fails to pick up on the major hooey in the world of S1m0ne: One of the film’s ancillary plots has to do with the media’s newfound obsession with Simone. As soon as they get wind of her existence, they send spinning papers into the world, and start hounding the studio to catch a glimpse of the budding starlet. Of course, there isn’t one, so Taransky needs to go out of his way to satiate the hungry mob and keep his secret under wraps. He attends press conferences only to throw questionable information at the hounds. He does interviews via “satellite” while speaking through Simone, praising none other than himself to high holy heaven. He goes to some lengths to stage a Simone hotel visit—spraying perfume, scattering lingerie, and hiring a body double to slip a garbage bag over her head and sneak out the side entrance, to the flutter of a thousand cameras. Some are easily swayed; others take to penning false childhood profiles and tapping Taransky’s phone. Upon only hearing one side of the conversation, they don’t wonder why Taransky is talking to himself; they fall deeper into the rabbit hole and believe Simone is encrypting her phone calls. As the hits keep coming, even the most skeptical journalists fall under Simone’s spell.

And in spite of his best efforts, so does Taransky. Scott Tobias is dead-on with his comparison to Frankenstein, in that soon, the beast Taransky created turns on him. All he wanted was a movie star who cared only about the work, and left her personal life out of her job; in turn, he learned that the public doesn’t care about the work, either. They just want to know as much as possible about these people, in order to begin living vicariously through them. Thus no matter how many times Taransky tries to deflect people away from Simone, they come back in full force, demanding more. So he gives them more—he's lost all control. It starts with explaining that Simone is never seen because she’s addicted to computers, which was probably the hot-button topic at the time of the film’s release. (Everyone who hears this fact looks visibly disgusted.) Then the Photoshopping begins, so everyone thinks they just missed seeing Simone. Then, when one journalist demands to see Simone live, Taransky stages an elaborate smoke-and-hologram concert on a raised stage—oh yeah, Simone’s a singer, too—for 100,000 people. Right around the time that Taransky throws on some lipstick and starts planting big smooches on headshots, I started to get the vaguest sense that his screws had begun to loosen.

Taransky gave Simone life, but Simone can’t think on her own. Therefore there’s an odd cart-before-the-horse thing happening, where Taransky winds up manufacturing the drama he later has to resolve. He and Simone begin to share one mind, the descent into madness expedites the process, and the film’s central theme becomes clear: People are truth-seekers, and you just can’t beat them at their own game. And without giving too much away, the more you try to undo what you started, the more it comes back to bite you in the ass.

If only Niccol had dialed down the distracting slapstick, S1m0ne could have really pulled me in. Taransky is nuts, sure, but even by those standards, that lipstick scene was a bit much. And did we really need to see the great lengths he goes through to win back his ex? Any scene involving a mannequin driving a car is automatically unnecessary in my book. And, lo, Exhibit A:

How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? About two-thirds. Throw Niccol a soapbox, and you’d get the rough equivalent of the first half-hour or so—it’s intriguing, but too on-the-nose. And throughout the film, I was obsessed with unnecessary details: How is it possible that not one person can vouch to have seen Simone in the flesh, yet every single person buys Taransky’s increasingly shoddy explanations? Niccol has to go out of his way over and over to explain these concerns away, and each time, it’s five or so repetitive minutes we could have done without. However, Niccol does maintain control over the satirical press scenes, and Pacino found a way to lust after a computer program the way a creepy dad might lust after his stepdaughter; it was hard to tear my eyes away. But, really, give me some flying pixels and characters fawning over way outdated technology, and I’ll be happy.