John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Groucho Marx have been brought back from the dead to make new TV commercials: It's not Christian resurrection, but technology and greed that have made it possible to manipulate existing images so effectively that it is probably only a matter of time and trademark before Gary Cooper appears in a sequel to High Noon and Judy Garland does another farewell concert. Yet why limit ourselves to the pantheon of historic performers? Why not manufacture a new star from scratch — or rather from electronic pieces of Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, and Catherine Deneuve? Since our only relationship to a movie icon is virtual, should anyone but her latest husband care whether Julia Roberts even exists outside the theater?

"If the performance is genuine," insists Viktor Taransky (Pacino), "it doesn't matter if the actor is 'real' or not." Taransky is a Hollywood director with a problem; his last three films have bombed, and his pampered, temperamental star (played to a fare-thee-well by Winona Ryder) has walked out in the middle of his latest production, a pretentious project called Sunrise, Sunset. Elaine Christian (Keener), the studio boss who also happens to be Viktor's ex, fires him, and actresses want nothing to do with a loser. This seems the final cut for Taransky, until a dead computer nerd bequeaths the director a software program that enables him to finish his film without hiring a replacement lead. He is able to create Simone (her name derived from Simulation One) out of pure pixels — and insert her image and voice into any frame in any way he wants. Power is restored to the pathetic auteur. The most malleable of actors, Simone does whatever the director wants — sans trailer, sans limo, sans agent, sans salary.

The movie is a hit, and, as Taransky observes: "A star is digitized." The public clamors for more of Simone, and her popularity increases in direct proportion to her reclusiveness. Though she makes another film, Eternity Forever, no one, not even fellow actors, ever sees Simone in person. Taransky manipulates the mystery, by staging remote interviews with his enigmatic star, as effectively as he directs her performance on screen. But his creation is soon controlling him.

"I have breathed life into a machine," boasts Viktor Taransky, a comic re-creation of Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, the arrogant scientist whose ambition to generate life proves deadly. Simone is an amusing parable about the perils of artistic hubris that, even without a clumsy glimpse of Viktor's daughter, Lainey (Wood), reading an article about Pygmalion, is reminiscent of many recycled myths about a proud creator who becomes enthralled to his creation. There is a little bit of Pinocchio here in the story of a cinematic puppet who seems to take on a life and a lie of her own. Writer-director Andrew Niccol, who was also responsible for The Truman Show, revisits the theme of life distorted by the relentless scrutiny of mass media. Simone is a spoof on the mammoth machinery of modern publicity that has elevated the nonentity Diana into an object of veneration and caused some to suspect that the moon landings really occurred in a studio. Simone is a version of Wag the Dog, in which Hollywood — not Washington — is the ultimate seat of power.

Rachel Roberts, a fashion model who is a newcomer to acting, is, in her rigid beauty, perfectly cast as Simone; and the veteran Pacino, whom audiences think they have come to know through dozens of performances, reinforces the theme of how the camera contrives bogus intimacy. That was Al Pacino, not his electronic doppelgänger, wasn't it? Like Woody Allen's recent Hollywood Ending, Simone features an artsy director who is still in love with the chilly, pragmatic wife who has gained control of the studio and his livelihood. Is there a trend here? Or are both simply continuing variations on male neurosis in the face of female power? In Simone, woman as ingenue, Muse, and boss is profoundly unnerving for Taransky, more victim than Victor. In the end, Simone, who has already moved from film into advertising and music, announces plans to run for office. That would have seemed a preposterous twist to the plot if, splicing together bits from old B movies, media consultants had not already created Ronald Reagan.

A concept entertainingly executed, Simone may ultimately survive as a figure of speech. One viewing is enough to provoke discussion among real people in real places, like TV talk shows and Internet chat rooms.

"A star is digitized"
Writ. & dir. Andrew Niccol; feat. Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Rachel Roberts, Evan Rachel Wood, Pruit Taylor Vince, Winona Ryder (PG-13)

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