THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Last summer, I saw a movie called Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It was a computer-animated film that gained some attention for having the most realistic CGI rendering of humans to date. The effect was incredible and there were moments when I forgot I was looking at something artificial, but overall it was still pretty clear that we were not being shown actual people. In other words, the technology was great but not perfect. This summer we get Simone, which is all about computer-simulated humans. Actually, it's about one computer-simulated human - one so realistic that she fools everybody.

Al Pacino plays Viktor Taransky, a Hollywood filmmaker whose latest picture, Sunrise, Sunset, has just been plagued by a large problem. Temperamental lead actress Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder) has dropped out for purely egotistical reasons (e.g. her trailer isn't big enough). There's still some work to be done on the film, but without her participation, the project is doomed. It's too late to reshoot and working with the star is no longer an option.

Al Pacino finds literally creates a new star in the Hollywood satire Simone
Just as the bottom is about to fall out, Viktor is approached by an old acquaintance named Hank Aleno (an unbilled Elias Koteas) who is an eccentric but skilled computer programmer. He offers Viktor a solution to the problem: Simulation One, a.k.a. Simone - a completely artificial digital actress designed to incorporate elements from the greatest female stars of all time. Her expressions and actions can be created from a few simple keyboard strokes. Hank dies after turning over the software, and Viktor replaces Nicola digitally without anyone's knowledge. Using his own understanding of performance, he adapts the technology to fit his artistic vision. When the film is released, it becomes a huge critical and commercial hit, turning Simone into an overnight celebrity.

Everyone wants to meet her, including Viktor's ex-wife Elaine (Catherine Keener), who happens to be an executive at the studio. Of course, she doesn't exist, so Viktor has to make a lot of excuses about her "reclusive" nature. Then two tabloid reporters (Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman) begin trying to find Simone. They can't. However, their investigation puts pressure on Viktor; to prove she is "real", he creates the appearance that she is on the talk show circuit. He continues to come up with schemes to make the world believe Simone is a real person. It works, but she becomes so popular that his own career takes a backseat to hers. When he releases a new film starring Simone, she's the one who gets all the credit.

Simone was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who also penned The Truman Show. He's one of my favorite writers because his ideas are so creative and original. Watching the film, I had an uncomfortable feeling that it was looking into a crystal ball. Someday, I thought, this picture is going to be looked at as having been eerily prescient. We've already seen computers used to put a vacuum cleaner in the hands of a dancing Fred Astaire, and Hollywood is already trying to computer-animate realistic humans. Can this story be too far from the truth?

I have heard some griping about the movie from those who feel the theme is stale. They call it just another story about the artificiality of show business and celebrity. I would counter that those people are missing the point. Although Simone addresses that issue, the real theme here is the destructive nature of increasingly good special effects. Viktor Taransky represents all those real filmmakers who have become so over-dependent on effects that the heart and soul of their work gets lost. (Are you listening, Michael Bay?) Viktor starts off wanting to use technology to increase the power of his story; by the end, he's relying totally on what his computer can do to get an effect. I think Niccol intends to be critical of this kind of filmmaking. For a director, becoming a slave to special effects is the equivalent of selling your soul. Somewhere it stops working for the movie and ends up working against it. In today's CGI-addicted world of cinema, this is a bold and challenging idea.

As the beleaguered director, Al Pacino gives his second superb performance this year (following May's Insomnia). The story suggests that, in his own way, Viktor falls in love with Simone. She gives him the respectability he craves. Then - when her success overtakes his - he burns with resentment. Pacino hits every scene with the right mixture of desperation, exasperation, and determination. I also want to mention Pruitt Taylor Vince, a great character actor who gets the film's best scene. His tabloid editor, clearly smitten with Simone, goes into a hotel room that Viktor has mocked up to make it look like Simone was there. The guy rubs what he thinks is her lingerie against his face and gently kisses what he believes is her toothbrush. The scene has no real larger context within the story; it's just a wonderfully sick-o scene put in for flavor, and it works because Vince is so effectively creepy in it.

There are big laughs and brilliantly satirical moments in Simone. My sole criticism is that it also has two lengthy scenes that flop big-time. In one, Viktor uses hologram technology to fake a personal appearance by Simone. I could suspend my disbelief in most of the plot's situations, but this was so hard to swallow that it took me out of the film for a minute. The other scene has him rigging a dummy in a moving car to make it look like Simone is talking on her cel phone to Elaine. Same problem.

Those scenes were awkward, but every other scene in Simone is near-perfect. Lots of movies get made about Hollywood and the filmmaking process. Some are good, others awful. This is observant in ways I didn't expect. I see a lot of movies with computer-generated effects. I may not look at them in quite the same way ever again.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: Although Simone is credited "as herself," actress Rachel Roberts is the real star. New Line Cinema initially tried to trick the press and public into believing that the film's technology is real - that the character is purely a computer creation. It isn't true, and Roberts deserves public recognition for her performance, which is crucial to the movie's success.

Simone is rated PG-13 for some sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.

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