An old post from peoplesforum back in September, 2002:
I'm guessing Andrew Niccol is the best practicing science-fiction filmmaker at the moment. He has a unique storytelling style, fleshed out by his visuals when he directs--sort of cool and distanced and impeccably lit, like, as some critics pointed out, Michelangelo Antonioni doing SF. It's a refreshing alternative to the Blade Runner look, with its huge buildings and flying cars and flashing light-n-sound show.
And he's thoughtful, which I like. He takes an SF theme--a society obsessed with genetics (Gattaca), a man raised entirely in a TV studio set (Truman Show), and here, a totally virtual actress--and sort of runs his fingers through them, pondering the various meanings. The ideas aren't totally original--The Truman Show is basically Dick's Time Out of Joint--but he does take SF cinema out of the kindergarten level, with its laser blasters and screaming spaceships, into the intermediate level, where the kids can actually sit down, take up their pencils, and do a few sums in their heads.
I like his quiet ways, I like the apparently always-obtuse angle by which he approaches his subjects, and I love the little jokes he slips into the margins. Maybe the best part of the movie are the jokes in the margins, the way the best part of MAD magazine is sometimes the doodles sketched into the borders of the feature stories--like when Elias Koteas as the computer genius who created Simone, one eye eaten away by cancer, looks at the fleeing figure of the filmmaker played by Pacino (who has taken Koteas for an obsessed lunatic, which he just might be), and the giant portrait of an eye on wheels casually rolls by behind him, pushed by some janitors. Or when Pacino the filmmaker is fired by his producer ex-wife (Catherine Keener), on the set of a New York street so detailed and expansive I wouldn't put it past Niccol to actually have shot it in New York, just to add an unnoticed layer of irony. Or when the virtual Simone is rumored to count among her lovers "Mick Jagger, Stephen Hawkings, and Fidel Castro" (Niccol's joke here seems to be that even Simone's lovers are too cool for words). And I can't help laughing when Pacino later visits Koteas' grave, and presents him with a plastic flower, muttering "I know you'd appreciate this..." Niccol's sense of humor is finely tuned, the jokes floating in from all kinds of unexpected angles.
Which makes you wish it's a better movie than it is. What Niccol lacks, apparently, is what The Truman Show (probably Peter Weir's best work, or at least the one of his I liked the most, for what it's worth) lacked compared to the Dickian original: a sense of urgency, an intensity that would make the proceedings more then the sum of its marginal jokes (Truman Show had a wonderful throaway line too, when Ed Harris as the megalomanic TV director says "cue the sun"). You FEEL Dick's worlds in your guts; you feel the parade of losers and freaks and struggling underpeople, and you feel the increasing sense of paranoia and fear. Niccol, as noted, likes to cultivate a distant tone, which is his virtue and ultimate flaw. Even his presumed model, Antonioni, had intense moments; Dick has many.
There are so many details that feel wrong about Simone, almost as many as the details Niccol gets right: the jellybeans are a direct steal from horror stories about rock concert contract riders (had a sudden vision of Groucho and Chico doing their classic showbiz contract routine over jellybeans--A Night at the Rock Opera, anyone?); on the other hand, actors whose egos have grown large enough to get in everyone's way usually end up directing and producing their own films, not walking out of someone else's. And a satire about how unnecessary actors are doesn't seem as pointed as a satire about directors--some of the greatest egotists in the world, there--treating actors as unnecessary (George Lucas, anyone?). And ultimately, it should be pointed out, but isn't here, it's all just fodder for the insatiable appetite for entertainment of the general public. The Truman Show at least got that much right: after all that sturm and drang, after Truman's fateful decision with regards to the show, the last shot is of a pair of security guards, wondering what else is on television...
Simone herself is a blank--an intriguing choice. Apparently Niccol wanted her to be a kind of tabula rasa for people to project their fantasies into, but we don't see that happening, the way, say, Dorothy Michaels (another construct from another comedy) turned into something women all over America could project their fantasies into. The most obvious person to fill Simone with a personality is Pacino himself, as Viktor Taransky (sort of a cross between Andrei Tarkovsky and Victor Frankenstein): but again, we don't see it happening. We see Pacino talking and the words coming out from Simone's mouth and in her voice, but that's about it: she remains as blank as when she's spinning in cyberspace.
Some of the plot developments (SPOILERS) are lovely--I like it that when Pacino disposes of Simone he's arrested for murder, and he has a harder time proving she doesn't exist as he had proving that she does. I didn't like it that Simone is accepted so easily--you shoot a movie where the star is nowhere to be seen, and suddenly there she is up onscreen, and what are you supposed to thinK? "Digital fixing" feels uncomfortably close to "digital construct," especially nowadys, when talk of "digital actors" is common. (END SPOILERS)
So many things right, so wrongheaded an end result...it's really sad. Niccol is like William Gibson without the attitude, or Dick without teeth--he has the brains, but not the guts or passion to do great SF. Ultimately I stick to my orignal statement, but with a caveat: Niccol is the best SF filmmaker at the moment--which is saying something, but not much.