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January 2001
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by Kathi Maio

Lost in the Land of Fake Fakes

Andrew Niccol has said that he never set out to specialize in "social science fiction film." His film projects just end up that way.

Consciously, or not, Niccol's career, to date, has made him one of the Great Bright Hopes of fantasy moviemaking. His films go beyond the FX-laden space cartoons that have dominated the field in recent years, to approach something more thought-provoking and less formulaic than your average alien adventure-comedy or inter-galactic epic.

Gattaca (1997), an impressive debut both written and directed by Niccol, is a somber and stylish thriller of the "not too distant future." In it, a natural-born, and therefore genetically inferior, young man named Vincent (Ethan Hawke) must pull off a most elaborate masquerade in order to live out his dream of space exploration. After purchasing the identity (and blood and urine samples) of a permanently injured genetically-engineered athlete named Jerome (Jude Law), it looks like Vincent might be able to pass himself off as a member of the genomic elite. That is, until a murder at Gattaca, brings intensive scrutiny to everyone at the corporate space agency.

Gattaca doesn't quite live up to the promise of its premise. The look and tone of the film is smart and sophisticated—despite all the bags of pee we have to look at—but the film is a bit too self-conscious in its elegance, rather like a luxury car commercial. (Only after seeing it did I discover that Niccol had, indeed, done ten years of journeyman work in television advertising.) And the climax, which goes nowhere and involves a subplot of sibling rivalry, just doesn't mesh with the rest of the movie.

Still, Uma Thurman, as the classy uber-babe who works with Vincent, and becomes his love-interest, is especially lovely to look at. (She could sell just about anyone a luxury car.) And, more importantly, the bio-ethical and social issues Niccol contemplates in Gattaca are both timely and important.

Niccol's second film was one he wrote before starting Gattaca. But since it was the larger budget project, with a major star (Jim Carrey) attached, it was put into the hands of a more experienced helmer; namely, Peter Weir. That movie was The Truman Show (1998) and it was an award-winning success which garnered Niccol much acclaim, including an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

Weir's solid directing and Carrey's surprisingly poignant performance as the title patsy certainly helped to make this prophetic look at the public's insatiable appetite for "reality" television a hit. But it was Andrew Niccol's script that made the movie one of the more intelligent high-profile summer flicks of recent memory. Again, a protagonist strives for self-determination in a tightly-controlled society. And again the movie tackles—if not completely successfully—several ethical issues related to identity and honesty.

It seems as though Niccol can't leave those themes behind. For his latest writing/directing gig also explores media appetites, public images, and the essence of self, all in a would-be farce about fast-approaching technology in today's Hollywood. The movie is called Simoneľor, S1m0ne, if you prefer. What I would have preferred is to have never seen this exceedingly dull and utterly toothless satire of Hollywood star-making.

The basic story of Simone involves a failed art-film director, Viktor Taransky (a scenery-chewing Al Pacino), who is ruined when his leading lady (Winona Ryder) walks off his big comeback movie, leaving it unfinished. In this alternate-universe tinseltown, where stars get to walk out on their contractual commitments, and studios leave multi-million dollar projects unfinished, Taransky is in big trouble. Not a single actress (yeah, right!) is willing to step into the lead role of Viktor's tragic romance.

Just when it seems all, including Taransky's pricey beach house, is lost, Viktor inherits the life work of a demented computer scientist who had made it his mission to produce a completely life-like synthespian. His creation, Sim(ulation)One, just happens to be a beauteous Malibu Barbie of a blonde who can, and will, do anything she is commanded to do, without question or complaint.

Viktor completes his film with his artificial ingénue. The movie becomes a hit, and Simone, a meteoric international star. Rather than proclaim his technological breakthrough, Viktor tries to hide the fact that his new discovery exists only in cyberspace. The rest of Simone consists of Viktor exploiting his new star, while hiding her "identity" from her adoring public. Then, when it becomes too elaborate of a ruse of sustain, he peevishly attempts to destroy his creation so that he can get back to reality.

What can I say about Simone, except that it is one of the most misguided film projects I have ever seen?

I mean, really. Did Mr. Niccol grow up on the Titan his Gattaca hero so wants to visit, or perhaps another far-away moon? Someone forgot to tell the filmmaker that skewering Hollywood for selling fakery is like taking Santa to task for his overly cheerful demeanor. Hollywood is a dream machine predicated upon visual trickery, after all. So, the film's basic conceit has no inherent conflict or comedy in it.

Filmmakers have been creating fantastical CGI performers (like the "animated" Shrek and the "live-action" Yoda) for several years. The altering and augmenting of live actors with CGI effects is also common these days. A "Simone" is the next logical step—so why would Hollywood hide it? Answer: They wouldn't. They'd order up a six page spread in Entertainment Weekly about their breakthrough in movie magic.

There will be, it is true, actual difficulties to overcome when "realistic" completely artificial actors are finally introduced into "human" dramas. But you'd never know it from Niccol's movie. Among the many issues Niccol could have addressed is the challenge "vactors" might represent to the art and livelihood of flesh-and-blood performers. Something on the order of Walter M. Miller Jr.'s classic story, "The Darfsteller" (1955). I kept wanting one of Taransky's human actors to figure out what was going on, and react. (Wouldn't you think a guy would get a little suspicious when his co-star didn't even show up, in person, for a love scene?)

Or, here's another one: What about what it would mean for man like Taransky to take on the attributes of a beautiful woman. Since the synthetic Simone is doing nothing more than mimicking a performance coming from her director/programmer, why didn't Niccol have some fun with what it would mean for a male filmmaker to be forced to actually get in touch with his feminine side.

Better yet, truly push the fantasy envelope, and have the female synthespian develop a consciousness and will of her own, refusing to be the docile slave of her techno-svengali. (Remember how much fun it was to watch the robotic performers of Westworld (1973) turn on their high-paying clientele? I always wished that Yul Brynner's gunslinger doll had managed to blow away Richard Benjamin's milquetoasty tourist!)

There are just so many interesting places Niccol could have gone with his story. And he didn't bother exploring a single one of them. Worse, the filmmaker seemed to go out of his way to make Simone the most vapidly beautiful yet emotionally blank creature ever to appear on film.

What's that about? Is meant to be a slap in the face of the movie-going public? Well, if so, we are not quite as dumb as Mr. Niccol seems to believe. Julia Roberts—although not my favorite actress—is the biggest star of the moment, not because of the perfection of her beauty, but because of her infectious spirit and goofy grin, which light up the screen, even when she is playing (as she so often does) a passive-aggressive bitch. Impassive Barbie-ness is just not the stuff of superstardom.

Let's not forget, the most ambitious experiment in creating a quasi-live-action movie with synthespians was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). The film was visually exquisite, yet frustratingly inert. The quite lovely lead character, Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by the talented human actor, Ming-Na), just couldn't capture the hearts and minds of the viewing public, no matter what her feats of bravery and daring-do. She just didn't have enough personality.

On the written page, cyber-stars are just as much of a hard-sell. William Gibson couldn't pull it off in Idoru. (Even if you liked Gibson's 1996 novel—and I did not—I doubt that you could honestly point to the title character, a virtual pop icon called Rei Toei, as a complex and interesting character. She was a shadow-figure making few appearances on the page and garnering even less interest. What was her attraction? Why would a human rock star want to "marry" her? Who knows? )

I could excuse Andrew Niccol for not quite capturing human charisma in a synthetic screen character . . . if he had actually used an artificial actor for the role of Simone. But despite the initial hype on the movie, and the coy closing credits, which claim that Simone was played by "herself," the part of the new-fangled computerized mega-star was actually performed by a swimsuit and runway model from Canada named Rachel Roberts. The young woman acted out her part (with as few eye blinks as possible) and then Niccol's post-production team simply "Simonized" her look a bit—removing all blinks, altering her eye-color at will, and smoothing her already lovely complexion to the point of flawlessness.

Perhaps they also evened out her personality to the point of non-existence. More likely, Niccol purposefully hired an inexperienced actor and then coached her towards a flat performance It was an obvious, and ultimately disastrous choice to make. Pacino's Taransky is certainly an uninteresting and unsympathetic character (as well as a seemingly terrible filmmaker). If we can't relate to him, we need, at least, to be charmed by his pixelated protégé. Andrew Niccol doesn't even allow his movie-going audience that modest pleasure.

The best Hollywood satires (David Mamet's State and Main, from 2000, comes to mind as a recent example) contrast the greed and corruption of the Hollywood dream machine with something more ordinary and honest. Comedy ensues when the real world and La La outlandishment interact. Considering the kind of thematic concerns Andrew Niccol has addressed in his previous films, I would have thought him a natural at telling such a tale. Unfortunately, the moviemaker seems to have lost himself among the countless counterfeits of Hollywood.

Jeepers, it's pretty bad when even your synthespian is a fake fake!

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