The Congress wallows in an air of speculative lifelessness, capitalizing on the notion that movies will eventually be entirely populated by avatars fashioned from famous movie stars. Robin Wright, playing herself, is pressured by her agent (Harvey Keitel) and a standardly heartless studio boss (Danny Huston) to sign away the rights to her screen essence so that the studio may animate her into a variety of increasingly mindless action vehicles, keeping her permanently young and hot without any of the fuss of managing her human needs. This Faustian arrangement purposefully recalls the system of the “classic Hollywood” regimes of the 1930s and 1940s, when stars were under contract for a specific studio that micro-managed their public life, and is meant to be accepted as a metaphoric parallel to how we presently consume pop culture at a speed that rivals the rate at which we breathe. As executed, the concept is tidy, superficially clever, and almost defiantly irrelevant.
Even in the context of a presumably satirical fantasy (though it’s not clear, with the long melodramatic longueurs, that this is supposed to be a satire), it’s hard to accept that studios would be this eager to cash in on contemporary stars’ personas, as present blockbusters have pretty much proved, distressingly, that stars are largely beside the point. This is the age, after all, of the Transformer and of the smart-ass collective Marvel ensemble that proudly flaunts its insincerity under a banner of ever-forgettable special effects. It’s particularly hard to believe that a studio would be clamoring for a nearly 30-year-old image of Wright so as to capitalize on her at the height of her Princess Bride fame. She’s a gifted, almost supernaturally gorgeous actor, but Wright isn’t on the tip of the tongues of the young people who spend blockbuster dollars (it might be a promising sign of things to come if she was). And, really, preserving an actor to forever appear in films entirely misses the point of a business that revels in replacing new things with other new things.
The first (long) act is composed almost entirely of scenes in which the agent and the studio boss lecture Wright about her poor career choices, asserting that she needs to accept this computer generation deal to salvage whatever’s left to be gleaned from her career (another pointlessly incongruous detail is that, with House of Cards and a variety of great film roles, Wright is inarguably enjoying a career high). Eventually, she submits, leading to the film’s one truly powerful moment where she’s placed in a metallic motion-capturing orb that resembles a miniature Epcot Center and asked to replicate a variety of gestures as the agent manipulates her under the guise of empathy. It’s a scene where all the warring, contradictory concepts are refreshingly allowed to recede so that we can simply respond to a human being as a human being.
The film then jumps ahead 20 years into the future on the day that Wright’s contract with the studio is to expire, plunging us into a surreal, boldly colored animated realm that will be familiar to those who’ve seen director Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. It’s revealed, promisingly, that pop culture has evolved to the point of becoming an actual mass-distributed drug that the happy and disenfranchised alike can directly ingest, so to flee reality to become whoever they want to be, in a clever update on the most obvious debt that Folman owes to Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress. But again, the scenario is mired in irritating old fogey-isms: In this future, people take drugs to turn into Clint Eastwood and Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson. Doesn’t anyone want to be Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian, or Channing Tatum, or, even more likely, one of the people who gets to sleep with them? And why would anyone want to be a cartoon anyway? It’s an analogue concept in a digital world.
Little of this would matter if the film weren’t so humorless and literal-minded, if it had the kind of manic fly-by-night invention of, say, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or even the ripe erotic ambiguity of something like Avatar. There are beautiful images, such as of a vast desertscape that suggests a Van Gogh storyboard of Lem’s Solaris, and the live-action sequences in the beginning have a haunted, primal sense of blocking (with objects boldly placed in the foreground) that’s suggestive of a sleeker sci-fi parable. But the filmmaker’s too preoccupied with his story’s sense of “relevance.” Folman’s vision of a desolate poverty-stricken future, glutted from GOP-style deregulation (there’s a pointed reference to Reagan) and papered over with dangerously immersive and self-entitled fantasies of resentful celebrity worship, certainly scans with this reliably outraged liberal, but it’s too smugly anachronistic to matter. The Congress is best enjoyed as an unthinking procession of images that you allow to roll over your mind, but isn’t that the sort of complacent experience that’s being decried here in the first place?