It’s not surprising that S1m0ne wasn’t a hit at the time of its release in 2002. The premise is preposterous. Its dialogue is often absurd. The tone oscillates wildly from proclamations about the human condition to slapstick sequences. What is perplexing, however, is that in the intervening years it has not been reappraised as a cult classic for those same reasons.
If there were any justice, cinemas post-pandemic would be filled with crowds in fancy dress shouting along to every ridiculous one-liner (“I love you … LA”, “I know that tree”), critics penning serious-minded articles about its prescient world-building. Instead, it’s one of those films whose stellar cast – Al Pacino, Winona Ryder, Catherine Keener, Evan Rachel Wood, Jason Schwartzman – do their best to pretend they never appeared in it. The New York Times called it “post-entertainment – it’s tepid and vapid”. The career of writer-producer-director Andrew Niccol, fresh from the success of Gattaca and The Truman Show (for which he won a screenwriting Bafta and an Academy award nomination), never quite recovered.
Pacino plays Viktor Taransky, a misunderstood director whose latest film is derailed when its high-strung female lead (Ryder) suddenly quits. He is harangued by Keener, already typecast as “exasperated ex-wife”, to compromise his artistic vision in the name of “business”. But after an encounter with a shadowy individual he comes into possession of some cutting-edge floppy disks, which contain an experimental computer program that allows him to create an artificial actor.
The result is Simulation One, or S1m0ne, the perfect Hollywood star: she works tirelessly for free, is fine with nudity, does her own stunts and will never go off the rails. This being the early noughties, she is naturally a thin, blonde, white woman, portrayed by 24-year-old Victoria’s Secret model Rachel Roberts (who Niccol married later that year). The film is a hit, making S1m0ne an overnight sensation: “A star is digitised,” Taransky quips.
It is, ostensibly, about the rise of artificial intelligence: Taransky is modelled on Victor Frankenstein as well as the divisive inventor and transhumanist Ray Kurzweil. While the film’s predictions were seen as fanciful at the time, many have proved accurate: CGI is routinely used to complete films if actors die, Pacino himself has been digitally de-aged on screen, holograms perform live concerts, and virtual actor Miquela – a 19-year-old Brazilian-American model/influencer – was signed last year by talent agency CAA. It also follows in the tradition of men attempting to create beautiful, subservient simulations of women, from Pygmalion carving Galatea out of ivory in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to films like Ex Machina and Blade Runner 2049.
What makes the film work is how funny it is: it’s aware it’s a farce, though not, perhaps, the farce it thinks it is. It works least well when it’s trying to parody celebrity media frenzies – an easy and obvious target. But, watching it now, it is a biting satire of male ego and entitlement. Taransky is an affecting portrait of fragile masculinity: angry, resentful, needy, repeatedly emasculated by a fictional woman. The scenes in which we see him voicing Simone’s breathless praise (“Mr Taransky, we both know I was nothing without you … I was ones and zeros”) are imbued by Pacino with a remarkable amount of pathos.
How much of this was intended is up for discussion. By puncturing Taransky’s arthouse pomposity, Niccol was evidently sending himself up in places. But the film is a little too enamoured with the shiny blonde avatar of S1m0ne; certain sequences would, nowadays, fall foul of #MeToo. All the female characters are defined by how supportive or otherwise they are of Taransky (the character who comes out of it best is his unfailingly adoring daughter).
But, somehow, this adds an additional layer of entertainment. The film is in on about half the joke, which is the perfect ratio for cult film-making success: you are partly laughing at it, but also with it. It’s a snapshot of its time, with its creakily out-of-date technology and questionable sexual politics. It’s not the place to go to for cerebral conversations about technological singularity, but a fun, camp film in which an exceptional cast slightly embarrasses itself. I first watched it at some friends’ house late one night, and it was so good we got to the end and immediately watched it again.
I defy anyone to watch Al Pacino – sorry, Pac1n0 – one of the greatest actors of all time, playing shadow puppets with a blond wig and a Barbie doll and not be at least a little bit charmed.