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Tuesday 27 August 2002

Written, Directed, and Produced by Andrew Niccol
Starring Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Evan Rachel Wood, Rachel Roberts

Reviewed by John Shirley

Warning: Review contains mild spoilers

You're wearin a mask, you're wearin a mask, you're wearin a mask
— you look better that way.
— Iggy Pop

How am I going to work that certain thing into the review? It's got to be legitimate. Don't want to seem like I'm trying what I'm trying to do. I'll think of something. Meanwhile I'd better get on with the review.

Have you ever noticed how damned narcissistic Hollywood is? There was A Star Is Born, Sunset Boulevard, more recently the virulent self-hatred of The Big Picture and The Player — weirdly enough, self-hatred is quite narcissistic; there was the affectionate satire of The Muse and America's Sweethearts, there were any number of Woody Allen pictures at least partly on that theme...and now we have Simone. Notice how many of these are actually very good pictures; Hollywood types work harder when they're doing something about themselves. That subject, you see, is really interesting to them. Notice also that most such movies — even the boffo America's Sweethearts — don't do so well at the box office. But they make them anyway. They love to talk about themselves, even if they're being self-deprecatory — and even if they lose money at it.

Which makes Simone even more convolutedly ironic, since it satirizes not only our society's preference for the fraudulent, but also self-absorption — both in Winona Ryder's character, a hilariously spoiled actress, and in Pacino's Victor Taransky, the "uncompromising director" who realizes finally that he's not as concerned about his art as about appeasing his vanity.

Taransky is fed up with sucking up to movie stars. His movie star is walking out on the production because his movie seems obscure to her and she's afraid it's going to tank and because her airstream trailer isn't the right size. There's a lot of wit in this film. She says she's made a statement to the press that she's leaving because of "creative differences." He says that's right, the difference is you're not creative. Okay it's not Ben Jonson, but it's funny — and so is most of this film, as Taransky, desperate to save his movie, uses software given him by an obsessed and doomed computer nerd, to create a movie star digitally, a computer animated star, molded of delicious ingredients from the great actresses of the past: a little Audrey Hepburn in her smile, a little Bacall in her voice. This is Simone, played — to use the film's parlance — by "a model with a SAG card", Rachel Roberts. But (can I mention it now? Can I work that thing in here? No not quite!) it's not the Final Fantasy movie, because audiences knew those characters were computer animated. The whole point is, no one knows; they believe that Simone ("S1m0ne" in the typography of the movie's poster; the name is from Sim One, i.e. Number One Simulation) is real and they worship her. Somehow she's the perfect altar, the perfect frame, for everyone's fantasy of a transcendent movie star. Maybe Niccol is saying that we haven't got any great movie stars anymore. We've got popular actors. But where is today's Monroe, today's Katherine Hepburn? No one shines like they did. So we have to hoist an artificial star into the cinematic firmament. But movie stars were always more appearance than reality, the film repeatedly says, and now Taransky carries star making to its logical conclusion. Simone is the hit he needs, the actress he's always dreamed of, the glimmering focus of his artistic vision. He stages "secret rendezvous" with her in a Hollywood hotel, leaving her lingerie about, bits of borrowed blonde hair, glimpses of a hired stand-in rushing into a limo. He shows her appearing remotely in "a third world country" — a cruelly funny bit of satire in which she's beaming happily in her silk gown as she stands in front of a shacktown nightmare, and machine guns rattle in the distance.

Taransky goes to great lengths to make everyone believe in Simone and it works too well: she begins to replace him, to make him irrelevant. His wife — a studio head who's divorced him and is at last planning to drop him from the studio payroll — refuses to understand when he tries to tell her that Simone is computer generated. She hungers to believe in Simone, is half in love with Simone herself.

So Taransky tries to destroy Simone's reputation — has her "direct" a movie called I Am Pig in which we see her on her hands and knees, eating from a trough with pigs. But the audience loves it. And they love it when she appears on a talk show, drunk, extolling the virtues of cigarettes and reviling immigrants, methodically saying all the wrong things. In desperation he says she's died...and is rather predictably accused of her murder. He's dumped all the software at sea; all the proof she was fake is gone. So her fakery itself is gone. She might as well be real, and he's prosecuted as if she is. Does he get out of it? Well sure, it's a comedy.

Al Pacino is the artistic centerpiece of this film. He's completely convincing as Taransky. He doesn't seem to be playing one of those standard Al Pacino characters we've seen a lot of — he's quite real here, down to every seemingly effortless nuance. Rachel Roberts is at least apparently good — I'm not sure how much she was computer enhanced, though. She's an actress playing a computer-generated non-person who is in turn pretending to be an actress...

Niccol also made The Truman Show — perhaps his recurrent theme is the difference between reality and appearance; our collaboration with fraud; our compromise with fantasy. The way we lie to ourselves collectively, on a grand scale. That's what this film is about — the question of computer generated characters in art and life is secondary, a device for his admittedly rather labored (but artfully labored) point. To be sure, others in the science fiction field (here! This is where I work it in!) have posited similar scenarios. There were my own Eclipse books, in which I mentioned (years ago, way before Gibson's delightful Idoru, which also mentions computer animated celebs) that movie stars would be computer animated without the knowledge of the public, that scandals and divorces and histories would be fabricated for them. (Have you ever personally met Julia Roberts, by the way?) I also said this technology could be used politically, to digitally fabricate enemy troop movements "caught on video", so as to justify a war, and to keep a demagogic leader going when he'd been assassinated — I had him appearing in holography, before a crowd, like Simone. Not that they stole my idea; it's an obvious one, when we consider the implications of increasingly realistic computer-generated characters. I like it when bigshot directors have my ideas — after I've already had them. It's flattering. (See how I worked that in? Is it too obviously hubris?)

The issue of science fictional internal logic that arises in the context of a Locus review might make you scowl a bit as you watch Simone. You might ask, would no one guess she's computer animated? Could this really be gotten away with, legally, when every movie studio is protected by an encircling pack of ravenous lawyers? Would people really adore her so utterly, so mindlessly?

This film is a soufflé. If you bang a soufflé pan when you take it out of the oven, it collapses. Just eat the soufflé — it's quite a tasty one. There's a lot of air in this satire, but it comes together, it melts in the mouth, it's delicious.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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