Sometimes the most exhilarating science fiction movies feel kind of hallucinogenic, or logic-resistant. And if you enjoy a trippy journey into wackness, then you should definitely check out The Congress, in theaters today and already available on demand. Spoilers ahead...
The Congress is loosely based on The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem. But the main thing this movie seems to have gotten from Lem is a certain anarchic sensibility and a love of absurdist satire. Plus a few plot devices.
But for the most part, The Congress is telling a whole new story — and it's an odd mish-mash of celebrity culture, corporate dystopia, and a strange kind of lotos-eaters parable about people who choose to turn their backs on reality. There are tons of ideas bursting out of The Congress, and even more strange incidents that add up to a bewildering movie-length dream sequence. Even if it doesn't quite work in the end, it's full of beautiful imagery and poignant moments.
In The Congress, Robin Wright plays Robin Wright, a washed-up actress who once starred in The Princess Bride. In other words, she's playing a version of herself, Being John Malkovich-style. The flaky has-been version of Robin Wright gets an offer she can't refuse — Miramount Studios will digitize her and turn her into a digital actor, for use in all of their movies from now on. And in return, Robin Wright will agree never to act again.
And then once Wright agrees to this, we see her being digitized and forced to express all of her emotional range (thanks to her manipulative agent, played by Harvey Keitel.)
Then the movie jumps ahead in time 20 years, and the older Robin Wright is attending the Futurological Congress — which turns out to take place in a nonsensical cartoon world that you enter by taking some really intense drugs. Most of the movie is actually animated, because we're "seeing" the cartoonish pharmacological world that Wright is visiting. Eventually, much like Ijon Tichy in the Lem novel, Wright gets injured and cryogenically frozen, so she's able to visit an even further future, the one that the Congress was predicting.
If there's a through-line to all of this, it's the idea of escapism becoming a kind of trap in itself. The corporation wants to own Wright's image so they can put her into all kinds of movies, even the sleazy science-fiction epics that she always disdained. And instead of being freed by no longer having to perform in those films herself, Wright feels replaced and eclipsed by her digital alter ego. Later, in the trippy drug-induced world, people can become whatever and whoever they want to be — including a perfect copy of the younger Wright — but it's a classic false utopia, in which people are trapped and it's kind of nightmarish.
Director Ari Folman previously used animation to depict the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon in Waltz With Bashir, but here he's using it to take us further and further away from any kind of reality, and into a setting whose unreality is the core of its appeal.
The Congress is kind of an incoherent film, but that's clearly the point. Especially after we pass over into the cartoon world, figuring out what "really" happened and what it all means is kind of a futile undertaking. Instead, you follow a kind of dream logic: Wright agrees to surrender her identity by letting a corporation own her image and her emotions, and then we see how eventually the whole concept of personal identity becomes submerged in randomness.
The film's implicit polemic about corporate ownership of artists, and corporations' control over our dreams, is sharpened by all the hints that Wright was always exploited. She was exploited as a flesh-and-blood actor, in many ways more than she is as a digital performer. So it's not as though she's choosing between purity and compromise — she was compromised from the beginning.
And once we enter the cartoonish future where everybody gets to be whatever they want thanks to corporate-sponsored chemicals, it's legitimately beautiful. You might think the loveliness of a lot of the surreal imagery would undercut the film's critique, but if anything the beauty just lets us see how seductive this all is.
And as alarming — and sometimes terrifying — the cartoon dreamscape gets, it always feels sort of playful and whimsical, too. There's no attempt to force us into a simplistic rejection of all of this weirdness.
Meanwhile, Wright's main emotional anchor is her two children, Aaron and Sarah. Aaron has a rare and somewhat confusing condition, which makes him behave in a detached, somewhat otherworldly fashion but is also driving him deaf and dumb — Aaron's idiosyncratic playfulness contrasts interestingly with the pragmatism of everybody else around him. Meanwhile, Sarah is just sort of snarky, and is oddly forgotten later in the film as Robin obsesses about caring for the now-grown-up Aaron.
It's interesting that The Congress leaves out the word "Futurological" from Lem's original title — because even as this movie moves further into the future, it becomes more and more retro-futuristic rather than actually futuristic. From the hippie surrealism to the airships and images of sterile dystopia, all of the future shown in The Congress is recycled from older, more seminal works.
But that, too, works in this film's favor, in a way. Because at its root, The Congress is about how all of our fantasies get devoured and regurgitated by an entertainment industry that doesn't just want to reimagine our heroes — it wants to reimagine us, too.