S1m0ne (2002) — Pygmalion and Galatea return

“Creative Differences? The difference is, you’re not creative!”

Alex’s rating: If I could Photoshop my face in the mornings, I might get to work on time more often.

Alex’s review: So now’s the time for all you nerds who took Greek Mythology in school (or studied it passionately in your free time… hey, why are you looking at me like that, huh?) to rub your hands together in collective retributory glee because of the superior knowledge you possess. Yes folks, the premise of this movie is, in a way, one giant nod to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.

Brought to the silver screen with the twist of technology replacing the magic touch of Aphrodite, S1m0ne revolves around the antics of failing, frustrated, but nevertheless brilliant producer Viktor Tarasky (Al Pacino) who’s dealt a double-edged sword when a digital gift from the gods falls in his lap to save him from the career-wrecking likes of Winona Ryder and her self-absorbed, barbiturate-marinated, absurdly demanding ilk. I mean, Winona Ryder’s character of course, “Nicola.” Yup, mhmm, that’s what I meant.

Parallel to the myth, Taransky finds himself fed up with women (read: the typical Hollywood actress) after the leading harpy abandons his latest picture in the middle of production threatening lawsuit if she appears in a single frame. Furthermore, he’s all but blackballed as a result. Diverging from the myth, the answer to his prayers appears in the form of an archetypical mad-scientist computer nerd who has spent close to a full decade programming the perfect actress simulation. The down-on-his-luck Taransky receives the program (which is willed to him after the nerd succumbs to ocular cancer) and spends a good nine months breathing life into the program to finish his opus. Much to the good producer’s astonishment, his simulated star is not only mistaken for a real living person, but she becomes a film icon adored and worshipped by millions overnight. Moreover, Taransky does not.

She’s everything he wanted in an actress – a perfect combination of the looks, voices, and mannerisms of the grand dames of Hollywood – and yet, it backfires on him. Despite all the hard work he goes to, pouring his soul into what is essentially a high-tech puppet, it is the puppet who gets all the credit and adulation, not least of all from his ex-wife and daughter whose respect and love he is longing to win back. It’s not long before we slide into transition, from the beginnings of the ever-elusive “Simone” where Taransky uses her shamelessly and goes to the ends of the Earth to preserve the illusion of her reality, to the point where he’s so sick of being upstaged by his own creation that he actually starts trying to ruin her. It is a classic case of “damned if ya do, damned if ya don’t,” and Pacino pulls it off with class and wit to boot.

It’s a fairly straight forward concept, but the subtleties of the execution are really what sets this movie apart from the clichéd pack of myth / novel / fairytale adaptations that pop up time and time again. The performances are at the top of my list of things I liked about the movie, and topping that list, Pacino wins my heart by radiating pathos as he struggles with a situation that evolves further and further out of his control. It’s very nearly black comedy, because it really is awful and sad, but so funny at the same time.

One of the funniest parts of the movie, for example, is just after Taransky pulls off Simone’s debut and goes to the studio housing Simulation One. It’s here that we first discover how the program works and the timed mimicry between the actors entailed in producing that scene is just brilliantly done. Pacino has us believing for a few minutes that he’s really gone down the rabbit hole and come back with an extra personality or two. The feeling I got watching it was akin to that of watching another of my favorite actors, Willem Dafoe, do the mirror scene in Spiderman, except in this instance it had me gasping with laughter in addition to giving me chills. The tongue-in-cheek jabs given to art films in general is also well woven into the subtext, and will no doubt garner a giggle from both those who love art films (despite their tendency towards intentional incomprehensibility) and those who kick, scream, and dig their heels into the dirt to avoid being dragged to see them.

The other major plus for the film is Simone herself. Even though technology is creeping ever closer in on the territory of the flesh and blood actor, we still have not hit the point where computer animated actors could believably replace the real thing. Considering that, the effects used to bring a real-life actor to that visual precipice are beautifully rendered (and I do mean that literally, for all you 3D geeks out there). In other words, making a real actress pretending to be a fake who looks just good enough to be mistaken for a real actress is really well faked. Hmm. In less words: it was perdy and me liked it. The actress portraying Simone (Rachel Roberts…) did a respectable job enacting the still slightly inhuman qualities one would expect from even the most advanced computer generated animation, such as not blinking for long periods of time.

My only real complaint with the film lies in its hubris to hinge a very important element of the concept on cutting-edge technology, and then ignore the small details involved in portraying the technology in any way accordingly. For instance, at one point in the film, you can clearly see that the entire simulation computer set up is not connected to a power source, unless the cords are running directly into the floor and are miraculously invisible. I don’t care how many wireless technologies exist currently; no matter how sophisticated the system, it is still going to need at least one major power cord.

Another multi-layered bug that’s going to make the computer cognoscenti in the crowd itch is that this amazing program from which the entity Simone springs, (a program that ostensibly includes a gargantuan database containing video, audio, and still image files for every major Hollywood actress from past to present), is apparently able to fit on a single hard drive. And wait, it gets better. That hard-drive is not only compact for its enormous storage capability, but impervious to direct exposure to sunlight through a clear plastic casing, and can slide easily into any of the open slots of your computer without all the fuss of hooking it up to a power source or motherboard, just as simple as popping in a CD-ROM.

Where can I get my hands on one of those babies, and how many kidneys do I have to steal and sell on the black market to pay for it?! No, I’m serious, I want one. It never crashes, and only experiences minor insufficient memory messages when you’re broadcasting live to television via satellite. Last but not least, it is seriously backwards compatible – it has no problem whatsoever being installed in a system that’s still operating with an ancient floppy drive (you know… the discs that are actually floppy?). It could probably even work with my long since defunct Macintosh Performa! Unless I missed a time warp, or an important bit of information like Taransky accessing an already existent database, I find it difficult to ignore the techie faux pas that were made. Sure, you can gloss over them, call technology a plot device, and still enjoy the film, but I can promise it will continue to irk if you have even the slightest inclination towards computer geekdom.

Overall, however, I will say that this is one rental that I’m looking to buy and add to my collection of DVD’s for the sheer enjoyment of rewatching at will. Give it a shot; the worst it could do is launch you into a frenzy of 3D animation trying to create the perfect alternative to the reality of the opposite sex and become completely addicted to life within the computer, which, at least for me, would not be a huge lifestyle change anyhow. Just a reminder: Do not sit too close to the monitor.

Didja notice?

  • An enormous eye (a set background of some sort being moved from lot to lot) passes in the back of the alley when Hank (the creator of Simulation One) is first talking to Taransky as he’s packing his car to leave the studio.
  • Multiple cardboard cutouts of Winona Ryder in a rolling dustbin, yay!
  • Go-cart Rally on the studio lot
  • At one point while Taransky and his daughter are at the beach house, Lainey is researching Pygmalion on the internet.
  • Taransky’s key-code to enter the private studio housing Simulation One is mainly made up of 0’s and 1’s (you don’t get to see the entire code entered).
  • In the Academy Awards scene the actresses nominated for the same award as Simone all have computer hardware and software names: Claris Apple, Lisa Packard, and Lotus Corel.
  • When Simone’s costars for “Eternity Forever” with whom she conducts a meeting via telephone introduce themselves, most of them have computer software/hardware manufacturers’ names: Corel, Claris (Simone worked with her cousin Dell), Hewlett, Mac, Lotus, and the only one that isn’t a company is Hal, the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • The scene in the graveyard features headstones that bear the names of various crewmembers.
  • After the credits finish, we’re treated to an additional scene of Simone grocery shopping, and how it’s faked by Taransky. A still shot from this scene actually appears earlier in the film on some of the press clippings shown.

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