Jarv’s Birthday Series: S1m0ne (2002)

I’m into the last third of the Birthday Series now with just 9 films to go, and boy am I glad that I started this at the beginning rather than counting down as Droid did- else I’d have binned this as a terrible idea. Today’s effort is Andrew “Gattaca” Nicol’s 2002 high-concept film S1m0ne. I’m struggling a wee bit here, because I do want to applaud it, and some scenes in the film are absolutely stupendous. However, it just doesn’t work, and I’m going to take a stab at why.

S1m0ne is an incredibly high concept film. Nicol has long had an interest in technology and science fiction, particularly dystopia, but this time out he decided to attach a satirical edge to his science fiction. This, actually wasn’t a bad idea, and I would love to know whether S1m0ne was partially inspired by Square’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which made a large hoo-hah about not using real actors. That that film itself was lacklustre is beside the point, but what we have here is Nicol’s take on an industry that is becoming increasingly dehumanised and obsessed with technology. There are several stupendous ideas on display here, but S1m0ne is, at the end of the day, a hugely ambitious film that just doesn’t work.

Struggling director Viktor (Al Pacino) looks like his career is about to be finished when moody star Nicola (Winona Ryder) walks off set. Due to a dispute with her image rights, he has to physically reshoot his dismally pretentious film with another actress. Instead, Viktor decides to use a computer program called “Simulation One”  created by dead friend Hank (Elias Koteas) and digitally insert Rachel Roberts’ Simone (named from a contraction of the program’s name) into the, frankly shitty, film.

To his amazement, the film and Simone are a massive hit. Before he knows it, he’s handling the hottest property in Hollywood: a reclusive actress that works solely for him. Gradually, however, he’s forced into more and more elaborate stunts to maintain the façade, and when Simone receives two Academy Award nominations, he vows to “ruin her”. This, hilariously, is the best scene of the film. Victor has her “direct” herself in a film about bestiality entitled “I am Pig” which sees her debasing herself in the most humiliating and disgusting fashion imaginable. Too his complete disgust, the film goes on to be a resounding success.  Viktor has now reached breaking point and decides enough is enough- he’s going to “kill” her. He uploads a virus to the program, erasing her altogether then dumps the discs overboard his yacht. Next thing you know, he’s being arrested for murder, and nobody believes that she didn’t exist in the first place. Luckily his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) finds a way to restore Simone and all ends happily.

I’m not sure where to start here, but this film feels incredibly disjointed and episodic. Large parts of it simply don’t work, and rely on an enormous leap of faith (the concert performance). However, on the other hand, I can understand how the central premise of the film would be interesting to the man who directed Gattaca. With the dominance of Green Screen, and the phenomenal success of Avatar, S1m0ne can certainly be seen as being a touch ahead of its time. There’s certainly a satirical point being made here about the strength of star power, which the I am Pig sequence encapsulates brilliantly, but the film just seems to meander around without really getting its teeth into the subject properly. We live in an age of manufactured stars, and it’s not inconceivable for an actress to be digitally inserted into a film, but S1m0ne feels a touch cold, as if Nicol doesn’t have enough fire in his belly to really eviscerate the subject.

On the acting front, this is one of Pacino’s most restrained (and therefore best) performances in a long time. Viktor is a broken, tired man at the end of his tether and Pacino’s hangdog expression encapsulates this brilliantly. There’s none of his patented Scent of a Woman style pyrotechnic screaming here, and the turn is all the better for it. The support is all very good, particularly Wood and Koteas, but I’d like to add an additional nod to Jay Mohr’s slimy and self-obsessed actor. Roberts has a thankless task playing Simone, but the model can hold her head up, she certainly doesn’t let the film down.

I’ve said earlier on that the film is episodic, and I think this is where the problems come from. This is a film that can be effectively split into 3: Making it, During Success, Aftermath. It’s the last third that really doesn’t work. It’s completely understandable that Viktor would come to loathe his creation, but once I am Pig finishes, the film comes to a juddering halt. It feels like Nicol doesn’t either know how to finish it, or knows damned well and doesn’t have the balls to follow through (Pacino in prison for murder is the natural end). The compromise reached here means that the film has an uneven feeling, and the last section before the contrived happy ending drags something fierce.

In a way, I admire this film. In an age of bland, idea-less crap S1m0ne was brave enough to stick its head above the parapet. However, as lofty as the ideals are, the film still doesn’t quite work. The best sequences of the film are the really bitter ones, and perhaps a harsher, less polished and more savage film would have done the concept justice. S1m0ne suggests at stages that this is how it will play out, but at the end of the day it lacks the balls to follow through. It doesn’t matter how brutal the treatment of the “actors” is, if the script lacks the courage of its own convictions. The central conceit that we are now so dumbed down by star power that the audience will slavishly adore an imaginary figure is well put here, but the lacklustre final act almost lets the point go- and anyway, at the end of this film, what precisely has been achieved?

Overall, I do kind of recommend this film. The other day when we were talking about it, I rated it as one and a half. That’s absurdly harsh. S1m0ne is incredibly ambitious, and for that I do applaud it, but, by the same score, it’s also strangely coy. It’s a cocktease of a film: promising all and delivering less, and that is, as far as I’m concerned the real flaw. If Nicol had followed through with the idea, with Viktor’s fall complete, then I’d be cheering this one from the rafters, but the cop-out ending causes enormous problems for the last act, and leaves the film feeling strangely bland. Bland is something satire should never be. I give S1m0ne an entirely balanced 2 CGI Floating Jeff Bridges Heads out of 4. A good effort, and a brave swing, but a miss nonetheless.

Next up is an absolute fucking stinker. It’s My Boss’s Daughter and before I write the review, can someone please explain the fucking point of that Kutchner wanker to me?

Cheers to Droid for the floating heads.

Until next time,

Jarv

The full list in this series:

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

11 responses to “Jarv’s Birthday Series: S1m0ne (2002)”

  1. Continentalop says :

    Yeah, S1m0ne really left me disappointed too. If you’re going cautionary tale/satire, I always say you have to go dark and/or grand. Think Network, Being There, Wag the Dog, In the Loop & Dr. Strangelove: those movies had endings and third acts that stuck with you.

    • Jarv says :

      I struggled to put my feelings on paper here, but of the truly “great” satires, very few of them have a happy ending and even if they do it is tempered. Here the ending is ridiculously happy.

      If Pacino had gone to prison, then the film would have another gear that it needs.

  2. Xiphos0311 says :

    Never saw it, don’t even remember it and i have no real desire to see it. Good write up Jarv.

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers Xi.

      This is not an awful film, especially not compared to what’s surrounding it, but it’s just unsuccessful. Still, full marks for ambition.

  3. Col. Tigh-Fighter says :

    Cool review. Always was interested in this, but never managed to watch it.

    Probably wont, but glad its out there. I’d rather see a film with good ideas have a go at it, rather than copping out.

    • Jarv says :

      I’m sure I’ve made this sound worse than it is. It’s worth a look, kind of. It’s hard to be over-enthusiastic about this film, but it does at least aim high.

  4. Droid says :

    I agree with the review and the floating head rating of two out of four. All the pieces are in place for something really special, but it ultimately fails to take the story through to its natural (harsh) conclusion.

  5. ThereWolf says :

    I’ll have a look at this at some point. I’ve constantly bypassed this film without reading up on it. Finally, I know what it’s about.

    Plus I don’t normally notice dodgy third acts…

  6. just pillow talk says :

    Eh, a failed attempt at something great is still a failure.
    I’ll pass, even though I’m surprised that Pacino actually remembered how to act.

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