Simone: Reality and Fantasy in Hollywood (2002)

This article reflects a screening of an unfinished cut of Simone and is not a review of the finished film. SDG

By 2010, claimed British futurist Ian Pearson earlier this year in a list of technology-related predictions, the world’s highest-paid celebrity will not be a human being, but a computer-generated synthespian, and up to 25% of the faces seen on television will be completely synthetic.

Simone — or S1m0ne as it’s also written — is a satiric look at the beginnings of such a future, from writer-director Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show, Gattaca). The title character — whose name is an abbreviation of "Simulation One" — is a computer-generated actress who’s taken for the real thing after a desperate Hollywood producer named Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) uses her to finish his make-or-break movie and forgets to tell anyone that she’s not real. Targets of the film’s satire include the cult of celebrity, Hollywood superficiality, and the movie industry’s preoccupation with digital technology.

The first line of the film’s closing credits read, "Introducing S1m0ne as Herself." At the time of the early-look screening I attended, no further information about "Simone" was readily available. The movie’s production notes, website, and Internet Movie Database entry were all silent about who, or what, Simone might be.

So, is Simone finally the real fake thing? After the hubbub over the remarkable but far from persuasive "synthespians" in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within — which, flawed as they were, were certainly much more realistic than the human characters in any previous computer-generated movie — has the technology finally reached the point where a completely persuasive fantasy actress can now be incorporated into a film, even if she has to play a computer-generated character with limited screen time and interaction with other characters?

The answer, as it turns out, is no. Simone has at last been revealed as Canadian model and first-time actress Rachel Roberts. The irony is striking: In the movie, fictional director Viktor Taransky has a CGI actress that he bills as flesh and blood; in real life, director Andrew Nichol has a flesh-and-blood actress that he bills as CGI.

The parallels don’t stop there. The on-screen shenanigans perpetrated by Taransky in an effort to convince his coworkers of Simone’s reality seem to have been bizarrely echoed on the real-life set of Niccol’s film.

In the movie, Taransky persuades Simone’s "co-stars" that Simone is a Garbo-like recluse who prefers to act in solitude and afterwards be digitally integrated with the other cast members in post-production. Taransky also hires a Simone look-alike (Claudia Jordan) to dash from a limo into a hotel to help perpetuate the illusion of Simone’s reality.

The reality behind the camera was almost equally strange: Rachel Roberts was reportedly smuggled in and out of the studio wearing wigs and other disguises in order to hide her participation in the film, and on the set she was actually passed off as "the stand-in" for the synthespian who would ultimately be seen in the finished film.

Still another point of contact, obviously unintentional: From what little we see in the movie of Taransky’s awful-looking fictional projects, their supposed critical and popular success is clearly a Hollywood pipe dream. The real movie may be more entertaining, but if Nichol hoped for anything like similar success with Simone, he was living in a fantasy of his own.

The revelation that Simone is not after all the latest breakthrough in computer imaging, while not the movie’s only drawback, or even its most compelling one, is undeniably part of the problem — and herein lies a paradox.

One of the many ideas fluttering around in the background of Simone is this: Studios may find synthespians in many ways preferable to the real thing — after all, they don’t make outrageous demands about trailer size or on-set perks; they don’t quarrel over creative differences; they never need a stuntman or a body double — but there’s something about a passionate human performance that can’t be replicated. A brief, low-key set piece, in which a real actress (Winona Ryder) auditioning for Taransky generates startling emotional power in just a few lines, underscores the value of the humanity behind the performance.

Like most movie lovers, I don’t like the idea of flesh-and-blood actors being supplanted by digital automatons. So why is the fact that the real star of this movie isn’t a synthespian after all, but flesh and blood, a letdown?

Because, for one thing, she isn’t the star, or even a character at all. Taransky, not Simone, is the protagonist of Simone; Simone herself, quite rightly, is a mere cipher, a gimmick — and, while I may not be crazy about the idea a synthespian trying to pass as a full-blooded human being, there’s nothing especially interesting about a human being playing a gimmick either. If ever there was a role for a computer-generated character, this was it.

Had Simone been a real gimmick, instead of just a coy marketing stunt, she would have been quite a bit more interesting. At least then she would have offered an opportunity to showcase the latest technological advances, to give audiences a chance to marvel at Hollywood’s digital wizardry without having to worry about whether or not we would care about the character, the way we’re meant to care about human characters.

But it’s more than that. A timeless bit of storytelling advice is: "Show, don’t tell." Actually showing us a truly bleeding-edge synthespian would have made Nichol’s point far more effectively than anything his characters might be trying to tell us.

Comedy, Science Fiction, Smart Robot (Artificial Intelligence)