***½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras C+
starring Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Jason Schwartzman, Winona Ryder
written and directed by Andrew Niccol
"Pygmalion saw so much to blame in women that he came at last to abhor the sex, and resolved to live unmarried. He was a sculptor, and had made with wonderful skill a statue of ivory, so beautiful that no living woman came anywhere near it... His art was so perfect that it concealed itself and its product looked like the workmanship of nature." - Bulfinch's Mythology
Andrew Niccol's brilliant S1m0ne is an updating of the Pygmalion myth substituting a sculptor of clay for a sculptor of film and his disdain for women for disdain towards the peccadilloes of actors. The ending, however, stays the same.
Art-film director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is on the ropes after a string of commercial failures. As S1m0ne opens, Prima Donna actress Nicola (Winona Ryder) walks off the set of Taransky's latest labour of love just days prior to the end of shooting. With reels of completed film but no name actress with which to keep the studio dogs at bay, Taransky's approached by an eye-patched mad scientist named Hank (Elias Koteas) who has, apparently, created a solution for Taransky's SAG woes in the form of a perfect digital simulation of an actress. After discovering that his name is now associated with career suicide, Taransky bytes the forbidden Macintosh, completes his film (which looks suspiciously like a perfume commercial) to rave reviews and public adoration and in the process catapults fake girl "Simulation One" or "Simone" (Rachel Roberts) to global stardom.
Narratively, the bulk of S1m0ne is devoted to Taransky's efforts to hide Simone's true identity from studio chief and ex-wife Elaine (Catherine Keener), his daughter Lainey (Evan Rachel Wood), and a pair of muck-raking tabloid-magazine types played to twitchy perfection by Brent Briscoe and Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman. Structurally, however, the picture reminds most of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, wherein the well-intentioned construction of the monster results in the emotional and mental ruination of the creator. Even the idea of a monster built of cadaver parts finds itself cleverly transferred in a particularly pleasing sequence as Taransky tweaks Simone's program by adding elements of screen legends past to augment her performance: a twist of Audrey's lip in Breakfast at Tiffany's here, a hint of Monroe's pouting lisp there.
Pacino is wonderfully reserved as S1m0ne's Dr. Frankenstein, carrying the weight of transformation from devotee of the lunar art all the way through to angst-ridden murderer of a phantasm of his own creation. (The real wonder of the film is that the idea that Shelley's monster is a projection of the good doctor's shadow can find a more literal iteration in S1m0ne.) The picture's fascinating byways are littered with trenchant satirical jabs at the peculiar egocentricities of the acting breed, at the lemming-nature of the art-film crowd (or any mob), and particularly the misguided pomposity of a director trying too hard to be an auteur. Niccol's previous shot at directing, the severely underestimated science-fiction elegy Gattaca, finds its themes of hope springing eternal amidst wastelands of sterile dehumanization reaching their full fruition here in, of all places, a Wag the Dog for Sunset Boulevard. Niccol shows a bracing willingness to sidestep the obvious (Taransky declines to "consummate" his e-relationship) while having the wisdom to place his climax at the thematically perfect fulcrum of Taransky forgetting to thank himself through his marionette at the Oscars.
With an epilogue that initially strikes as rote, S1m0ne's last and best gift is its ability to expand its tropes even in moments that play, at first glance, as humour. The thought that progeny (literal and figurative) is possible in the union between a progenitor and his ghost in the machine provides as thought-provoking a paradigm as last year's existential Hollywood nightmare Mulholland Drive. S1m0ne proves that old saws like matinee absurdism and the riddle of identity can be presented in ways that are fresh, professional, and gently uncompromising. Drum tight and edified by Niccol's intelligence and dedication as another kind of Dr. Frankenstein, S1m0ne is the best kind of looking glass dissection: its revelations might not be stunning, but its execution is tainted with ambition and its lingering effect as quiet and chill as the new discovery of old truths. Originally published: August 23, 2002.
by Bill Chambers Available on DVD from New Line, S1m0ne boasts of an appropriately sleek video transfer. (Two, actually: one in 2.33:1 anamorphic widescreen and another in pan-and-scan on the flipside (see greyed-out comparison, left).) There is slight haloing but colouring is fantastic and shadow detail very articulate; scenes with intense contrast, such as the excerpts from Taransky's films-within-the-film, bring out the best and worst in the presentation, as their eye-popping clarity looks artificial. Audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and 6.1 DTS-ES flavours, the latter sounding warmer though not substantially better than the former. There is much ambience in the surrounds and Carter Burwell's score really embraces the viewer (if only it weren't one of Burwell's lesser efforts), but the sole instance of notable bass is during S1m0ne's concert--her singing foray an undercooked subplot, I hasten to add.
New Line's now-standard "All Access Pass" grants a half-hearted glimpse into the making of S1m0ne. "Cyber Stardom" (8 mins.) examines expectations of perfection in celebrities; here, Ricardo Torres of Black Box throws another reason why F/X houses are pushing for digital thespians into relief: "Animators are frustrated actors themselves." "Simulating S1m0ne" (7 mins.) interviews Crystal Dowd and other members of the film's effects team, who say that the abovementioned concert was the hardest thing to pull off. (Although a person plays S1m0ne, her image was CGI-enhanced throughout.) Nineteen deleted scenes, which may be viewed as part of the widescreen feature only (using "White Rabbit" branching), offer extended clips of S1m0ne's work plus a few more glimpses into the cruel side of S1m0ne's success--an exchange between a female custodian and Pacino's Viktor Taransky about how S1m0ne saved her life is sad and probably the story the film should be telling. Teaser and theatrical trailers (in DD 5.1, both) for S1m0ne as well as ROM-enabled script-to-screen functions and an interactive interface called "The Real S1m0ne" round out the so-so platter. Originally published: January 24, 2003.