Andrew Niccol’s S1M0NE [8/10]

The year’s darkest, funniest, all-out best comedy sees Al Pacino flexing some underused acting muscles after an apparently endless stream of knackered-cop roles. He shows an unexpected physical energy as egomaniac director Viktor Taransky who, frustrated at having to work with ‘difficult’ actors, is offered a radical alternative by a crazed computer-whizz (Elias Koteas). Simulation One, or Simone for short, is a computer-generated ‘actress’ (‘played’ by a digitally-tweaked Rachel Roberts) whom Viktor splices into his latest movie, replacing the original human performer (a cameo from Winona Ryder). Gullible moviegoers turn the ‘reclusive’ Simone into a megastar – but this turns out to be only the start of Viktor’s problems.

Just as its pixellated heroine is a combination of legendary Hollywood sex sirens (plus a little Ernest Borgnine), S1m0ne is a composite – fundamentally a hybrid of Billy Wilder’s Fedora and William Gibson’s novel Idoru, but with countless further in-jokes, references and hommages thrown into the mix. In terms of more recent movies, Niccol combines the back-lot savvy of The Player with giddy absurdism of Being John Malkovich – whose Catherine Keener appears as Vik’s studio boss ex-wife.

But S1m0ne, like Simone, is more than just the sum of its parts: visually striking and thematically intriguing, it’s often also laugh-out-loud hilarious while managing the extremely difficult feat of sustaining its comic momentum over an audacious 2-hour running time. Breezily ignoring plausibility (Simone is nominated twice for Best Actress in the same year’s Oscars), Niccol instead daringly extends the range of his satire: as she develops, Simone amusingly takes on more and more of a Princess Diana ambience – romantically linked with a succession of unlikely famous names, she’s even “buried” on an island after her apparent tragic demise.

Niccol’s ambitions occasionally overwhelm the essential lightness of his material (early on Vik has Simone proclaim “I am the death of the real!”) but he wisely keeps the main focus on the increasingly desperate Pacino, who has many scenes with Simone where he’s basically acting against a blank screen. The whole film is deliberately somewhat underpopulated, in keeping with Niccol’s coolly minimalist visuals – which feature some mockingly “Soderberghian” colour filters. The one striking exception comes when Simone ‘appears’ in public for the first time at a sell-out stadium concert: enshrouded by dry ice, hologrammatically belting out ‘Natural Woman’ to her arm-waving, adoring public. It’s at inspired, delirious moments like these that S1m0ne really takes off – unlike Simone herself, this film is emphatically the real thing.

Neil Young
15th October, 2002
(seen 4th October, Odeon Mansfield)

: USA 2002 : Andrew Niccol : 117 mins