Every filmmaker of popular, narrative films must eventually come to terms with the fact that he or she cannot do it alone. They have to rely on the contributions of other people to achieve the dramatic, saturated, larger-than-life worlds of their supposedly singular “vision.” This reality is compounded by the irony that many filmmakers are attracted to the medium because they are emotionally insecure and prefer cinematic fabrications to the realities of dealing with other people.
That unstable mentality underlies Andrew Niccol’s S1m0ne. Al Pacino stars as Viktor Taransky, an art-film has-been director facing permanent unemployment when his female lead (Winona Ryder) abandons his latest effort. He is saved from oblivion by a computer program that enables him to create his own star, “Simone” (short for “Simulation One”) who wows viewers so completely that Viktor is able to exploit “her” repeatedly, with ever more exaggerated success.
Micromanaging every detail of a movie down to the shape and duration of a tear is a fantasy with which any filmmaker can identify and enjoy, and to be sure, S1m0ne has some sharply observed, bitingly funny moments. All involved are clearly working from inside experience and probably settling a few scores. But is that enough? Can such a conceit be sustained beyond its initial formulation?
Questions about the inevitably dated technology matter little, because the story isn’t about the tools. It is presumably about the obsessive behavior of Taransky and of filmmakers generally. Presumably, but not really, since S1m0ne is not about film making either. It does not show us Taransky tyrannizing (or seducing) other people in relentless pursuit of an elusive, ephemeral ideal. We are told about Viktor’s obsessiveness, but we do not experience it. Instead, the story focuses on an ever greater heightening of Simone’s impact and popularity. The results are entertainingly ridiculous, but they become less believable with each exaggeration.
Few of them convince anyway, because there is a vague pointlessness to S1m0ne that was also true of Niccol’s Gattaca. Neither film allows us to forget their self-congratulatory technical sheen that borders on the smug. S1m0ne’s satire is more enjoyable than Gattaca’s pseudo-serious genetic dystopia, but we are still always a touch too aware of how immaculate everything is to be able to be taken in by much of it. Even Pacino, despite some priceless twists on his lines, seems a bit tentative.
From its precious title onward, it is tempting to say S1m0ne resembles a precocious student film with a big budget, but that isn’t quite right either. Rather, its clever ideas wrapped in slick packaging feel like the deep thoughts of a second-rate intellect. The results are enough to capture our attention and motivate the occasional good laugh, but ultimately the film seems thin. Niccol is certainly not alone in mistaking his pretensions for profundity, but his shallowness qualifies him to make fun of Hollywood for all the wrong reasons.