As a filmmaker, Andrew Niccol has almost single-handedly rehabilitated the deservedly maligned term “high-concept.” Take, for example, Gattaca, his 1997 debut feature with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. How many out there were keen to the factoid that G, A, T, C were the four building blocks of DNA? Pretty sharp there, given that the tag line of the film was “There is no gene for the human spirit.” Even his studio-produced sophomore script effort, The Truman Show (1998) slouched towards Bethlehem – the Peter Weir directed life-in-a-fishbowl drama was “The story of a lifetime.” In Niccol’s third effort, S1MONE, nomenclature is destiny. The central character, auteur Viktor Taransky (perhaps himself a composite of filmmakers Tarkowski and Polanski), is bequeathed software that allows him to realize a “synthespian” S1MONE, short for “Simulation One.” Now Simone is not a name without matri-lineage: Simone de Beauvoir’s treatise The Second Sex (1949) became the definitive declaration of women’s independence with her manifest that “[W]omen is not born, but made.” Perhaps in deference to de Beauvoir, S1MONE’s log line is “A star is created.”
One moment Al Pacino’s Viktor Taransky is King of the World. He’s a twice Oscar-nominated (for short film) director who is close to wrapping Sunrise Sunset, a studio-subsidized art film complete with big budget star. A-lister Nichola Anders (Winona Ryder in an edgier-than-Julia-in-Full-Frontal cameo) has a diva tirade, abandoning the set because of a terminal case of trailer-envy. Without its star, Amalgamated Film Studios, run by Taransky’s ex-wife Elaine Christian (Catherine Keener squandered in another in a string of castrating-mankiller roles), wants to shelve Taransky’s Seventh Seal-esque opus. Before you can whisper “Deus Ex Machina,” a terminally ill computer genius (a shadowy Elias Koteas) appears on the scene; it is his dying wish that Viktor have his life’s work – the means to create simulacrum S1MONE. And we’re off!
Re-edited with S1MONE, Sunrise Sunset (tip of the hat to Sunrise, considered one of the greatest silent films ever made and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard) captures world-wide box office. But its success pales compared to the literally overnight sensation of S1MONE herself. At this point we reach the crux of the film: How long can Taransky perpetrate the fraud that is S1MONE and to what end? The film is rife with ribald Hollywood-insider insights. A favorite is uttered by Sunrise leading man Hal Sinclair (played as a glassy method-actor-by-teleprompter by Jay Mohr) about Viktor’s next project: “I have not read Eternity Forever, but it’s fantastic.” But the film is unanchored. A trite subplot involving a pair of tabloid reporters (Pruitt Taylor Vince and Rushmore’s Jason Schwartzman in a pair of Keystone Cop roles) in search of all things, the truth, both mires the comedy and subverts the potential subversion of S1MONE.
Amidst the scattershot misfired farce there are a handful of sublime scenes: a holographic S1M0NE singing the Aretha anthem “Natural Woman” at the Hollywood Bowl; Pacino essentially monologueing the dual parts of Taransky and S1MONE as she engages a roster of faux talk show hosts, all hoping to catch a glimpse of the unvarnished actress. While the denouement of the film is a disappointment, it does contain the kernel of a chilling premise: Having managed to gain a toehold in the world of Hollywood & Vine, how far can an assault on the Body Politic go? It is a discomfiting thought, but one sadly unmined by Niccol.
Unlike Gattaca’s futureshock of a Neo-eugenics, the ability to mimic reality through technology is already close—the total eclipse of verisimilitude is ten minutes to midnight. As S1MONE herself asserts, “I am the death of real.” But rather than script a dark send-up of our modern take on narcissism—a Dr. Strangelove of celebrity, Niccol is tentative, making for an uneven satire.
Andrew Niccol seems to have a particular, idiosyncratic strain of nostalgia. He longs for a yesteryear where starlets were the ephemeral inventions of the studio system and auteurs shone bright, yet he is also teeming with visions of a fraught future. It would seem that he is a kindred spirit less to the immortality-through-techno-fetishism camp of Zemeckis (see Forrest Gump, Death Becomes Her) than to de Beauvoir and her compadre Jean-Paul Sartre, who both held that freedom of choice is a paramount consideration of morality and immorality in one’s acts. Each of Niccol’s three films recognize that technology will play a part in the next evolutionary step that humanity takes as it lurches towards tomorrow. What he seems reticent to confront is what will become of us as SIMMS chips move from being accessories of our existence and meld with our hardware—into our very tectonic essence.
– Jerry Weinstein