Cautionary tales about a near future

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Aman learns that his whole life was created for a popular television show. A baby's future is predicted on the basis of the genetic markers in his blood drawn at birth. The beautiful star of a new hit movie is really a computer program.

Welcome to the world of Andrew Niccol. The New Zealand-born filmmaker, who burst on the scene as the writer/director of "Gattaca" (1997) and the writer of "The Truman Show" (1998), releases his third feature, "Simone," today. His work is among the most literate science fiction on screen, which, as it turns out, is something of a surprise to him.

"I was almost the last to know that I was writing science fiction," says Niccol during a promotional tour for his new film. "I just wrote what occurred to me."

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These days, science-fiction movies are loaded with special effects – the more the better, as with this summer's "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones."

Niccol's films may require some special effects, but they're about people who are recognizable from our own world. Although each of his films presents technology that doesn't yet exist, there are no alien spaceships or atomic ray guns. It's all within the realm of the possible. As Niccol puts it, "I like to set my movies five minutes in the future."

With "Simone," Niccol turns his attention to Hollywood, lampooning every aspect of the industry, from the celebrities to the media to the public hungry for every celebrity detail. "The biggest dig is at us: the audience," he explains. "The real question is ... why do you know more about Julia Roberts than your own family?' "

In the film, director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is working on his latest opus when his headstrong leading lady (Winona Ryder) walks off the set. Enter Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas), a computer wizard whose new program allows people to create performers by combining elements of the greatest movie stars.

Taransky builds Simone – an abbreviation for "Simulation One" – out of prerecorded parts of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, and, of all people, Ernest Borgnine. The joke of the film is that Simone becomes a superstar, and Taransky is obliged to keep the hoax going.

In reality, Simone is played by Canadian actress Rachel Roberts, in her movie debut. However – in keeping with the spirit of the film – Niccol notes that her image has been digitally tweaked.

Perhaps the most ironic bit of casting is that of Pacino as the director who thinks he can dispense with a star. "It's the actor's nightmare," says Niccol. "That was the reason to have Al." It's far funnier, he says, to have one of Hollywood's royalty say, "Who needs actors?"

Although the technology displayed in the film isn't yet available, it's not that far-fetched. Today, digital alterations improve the looks of stars or alter scenery. Compared to completely animated movies like "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc.," creating realistic human characters is a bit more difficult, as last year's "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" demonstrated. But the work continues.

Niccol recalls researching the special effects for "Simone." At one company, there was a man working on a computerized sphere with hair on it. His job was to make the hair move realistically. In the next cubicle, another technician was programming the look of skin. "The face is the hardest," says Niccol, "because we look at it all the time."

All of Niccol's films thus far appear as cautionary tales about a near future that at first seems preposterous and then becomes frighteningly like our own. In the near-future world of "Gattaca," children are genetically planned. Those who are conceived the natural way are stigmatized as "de-gene-erates." Once again, it's not as science-fictional as you might think. "Insurance companies already deny people coverage because of their genetics," Niccol says.

In "The Truman Show," directed by Peter Weir, Jim Carrey played a man who lives in an enclosed village unaware that everyone around him – including his mother, his wife, and his best friend – are TV actors. "I thought it was far-fetched at the time, but now with all these reality shows ...," Niccol mused, considering a real-life version of "The Truman Show," "maybe they'd take a child from the third world."

Perhaps, he adds, the producers of a real-life "Truman Show" might even convince themselves they were doing the kid a favor.

As to why Niccol is drawn to these near-future stories of people unable to keep up with the technological changes, he's not quite sure. "I had a happy childhood," he says with a laugh, insisting that he's not working out any youthful traumas.

Though he now divides his time between Los Angeles and New York, Niccol still returns home to New Zealand see his family. Could that be the key to his stories? Perhaps.

"Because it's such an isolated country," says Niccol, "you see things from a distance. This story probably couldn't be told by an Angeleno." Or, as Niccol would likely agree, by a virtual reality writer/director.

At least not yet.

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