A Niccolesque hybrid of live action and animation that is also a hybrid of excellence and crap, and I'm always very confused about how to grade these.
2013 (them)/2014 (us)
Written and directed by Ari Folman (based on the novel The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem)
With Robin Wright (herself), Harvey Keitel (Al), Jon Hamm (Dylan Truliner), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Aaron Wright), Danny Huston (Jeff Green), Sami Gayle (Sarah Wright) and Paul Giamatti (Dr. Baker)
Spoiler alert: moderate
The first thing to get out of the way is the worst: The Congress, based on a Stanislaw Lem novel that seems to be much better about this, is dangerously undercooked as a science fiction story, and it's quite content to (try to) hide its narrative issues behind mood, visuals, and outright obfuscation. As a result, the best parts of The Congress are the parts before we get to the promised animated science fantasy freakout, and instead comprise a smart, speculative, metafictional short film about Robin Wright's pivotal role in the ongoing automation and commodification of every last human endeavor—not just motion pictures, but all art, and indeed sensation and emotion themselves.
So we begin in the present day with Robin, playing exactly herself except with a bitchy daughter and a sick son and a house unlawfully close to an airport—two things that as far as I know are not true and one that I know isn't. She is offered a contract by Miramount Studios—a last contract. If she agrees, she will have her body, her expressions, and her movements scanned and translated into a computer model. Miramount will own this scan, and use it to make movies that the real Robin won't fuck up with her human weaknesses, like being 44. The additional consideration on Robin's part is adherence to a non-compete agreement: she shall refrain from acting for twenty years. She's disgusted, but living is not free.
I'll avoid boring you or myself with a discussion of why the non-compete clause is probably void.
Now, the entire movie could have been this, which may not sound like another way of saying "it could have been enormously better," but it is. Harvey Keitel is on hand as an agent with a heart of gold, or some kind of inert metal, anyway; Danny Huston is here to present a rotely but enjoyably evil studio executive, whose whole job is to close deals, so he counter-productively insults anyone he's negotiating with; and Wright's performance is not just a very brave one, but a perfect crystallization of the disaffection experienced by every actor—and particularly every actress—who never entirely made it, or made it and lost it, and who knows the choices they still possess are now far fewer, and much harder.
"You might experience a slight skin cancer."
But the really good part of The Congress is only a prologue to—only a charitable reading prohibits using the expression "an excuse for"—the other part, this being those trippy animated sequences. This didn't need to be as unfortunate as it is—those trippy animated sequences are what enticed me more than anything, lo those many months ago, when its release was first announced. But this is the film we have.
Twenty years later, Robin is the guest of honor at a Miramount exhibition, called the Futurological Congress because plot events to come even later will have some vague reflection in Lem's novel. It takes place in a restricted animated zone, which means that before you enter you have to snort a liquid that will turn you and everything else into a cartoon (the fake science and scarcely less-fake logic is muddled and shall be dealt with downstream). After being dosed with this powerful hallucinogen, you drive (!) your car (%^#@) to the hotel where the Congress is taking place. The surrealistic shock of the first moments of animation are enough to get you even if you know they're coming; I've got no desire to ever see The Congress again, but I'd absolutely be willing to force somebody who's never heard of it to sit down with me and watch it at least through this scene.
As is my wont when I watch movies that confuse me, I yelled "What is happening?" at the screen many times, but received no especially satisfying answer. The entire point of the Futurological Congress is to poorly explicate without explaining the origin of a class of drugs; these drugs are so good that they will replace movies and all other forms of entertainment, permitting their users to experience and feel and be anything they can wish for.
The Congress is also a platform to indulge in that awful burn-Hollywood-burn cliche, the movie within a movie that no one really put any effort into because it's fake, and because it is supposed to be humorous, since ha-ha, aren't movies fucking stupid anyway? We get to see clips from one of Digital Robin's films, and it is terrible, unconvincing, and, though it has the trappings of a joke, direly unfunny. (And it's not even an example of the Holocaust erotica they set up in the first act, which at least would have been daring.) The effort here is par for the course for this awful trope, but I am still disappointed. At least the first time we saw a digital actor's film in the movie—when it was still sensible object itself—the fake film's atrocious nature was mildly amusing, since it was supposed to be an experiment, rather than something anyone in their right mind would ever willingly watch. The only salvage to be had here at all is that Robin hates sci-fi, and if she'd had the leverage would've put a clause that prohibited her likeness from being used in any sci-fi film; and the idea of that is pretty funny.
At the Congress (isn't that a delightful screen credit?), Robin meets Dylan, the man who animated her image at Miramount and fell in love with her in the process. Jon Hamm's performance manages to balance the intense creepiness of his character's conception with a kind of soulful openness, and it works. With him in the picture, the film regains some inherent interest apart from its visuals, for about twenty seconds. Then some kind of poorly-explained terrorist attack upon the Congress happens. Robin is accidentally overdosed with the cartoon-chemicals and is cryonically frozen until such time as science can revive her, which it eventually does.
Despite the interruption, this is for the best, since—twenty years later than twenty years later—the actual Goddamned movie begins. This is fitfully interesting and even moving, and though in large part this might be due to Max Richter's part-lamenting, part-awed, all-derivative score, it's also true that I've never taken off points for seeing (or hearing) something I liked the first time for the thousandth time, so I don't intend to start now.
The whole world has fallen to the shared hallucination promised by Miramount's drugs, and their molecular utopia is pretty, albeit rather cold and dull—no one speaks but Dylan, who's dutifully waited on her to return. I take the emptiness of the wonderland to be its very point, though it's a dull and uninspiring point; and I also tire of transhumanist stories that, fundamentally, really seem to hate transhumanism.
She's willing enough to indulge in the romance, but Robin is naturally more concerned about the fate of her children, particularly her son, and undertakes to search for them. This is a herculean task now that neither the Internet nor the census nor (apparently) fixed addresses have survived the strung-out apocalypse.
Thus The Congress draws pretty much every iota of its dramatic tension out of a premise that is fundamentally unsound, essentially requiring one to imagine that civilization has become so socially atomized and identity so fluid that no one can be tracked down, even if there is no reason why they wouldn't want to be. It's so bad that a daughter couldn't recognize her mother because, I guess, she's forgotten her mother's name and appearance and manner. Wait, what? Whoops, that scene's over! Move along. Now.
"And why does the hallucinatory dreamworld have waiters that look like Michael Jackson? Do people have jobs? Do they need money and exchange their labor for—" "I said, 'Fuck you.'"
The animation that is The Congress' real selling point is striking enough. It has been compared to Max Fleischer, which I see a bit of (I also see Hieronymous Bosch and Rob Zombie and Rene Laloux). The Congress' fantastic planet is impressive—things are organic and weird and beautiful, constantly shifting and changing, as befits a hallucinatory realm.
Look, I like prog rock as much as anybody, but—actually, I like this too.
The character design, too, is neat, if subverted a bit by its marked lack of enthusiasm in depicting senescence—Robin, who is supposed to appear to very much like herself at age 64, looks astonishingly less like an old woman, even an old Robin Wright, and far more like a beautiful 30 year old with platinum blonde hair, a great body, and exceptionally cute eye bags. The design actually manages to be prettier than the real Robin Wright was in The Princess Bride—no mean task—if you translate her cartoon image into a real person. (A hazardous occupation, I admit, that could lead one down some very dark paths, pornwise, but I took the risk.)
But no problems here. Just look how gross she is!
The character animation itself—the actual movements and expressions—are extraordinarily strange. Every single movement is slow and deliberate and rigid that it's off-putting, and not in a good way, nor in one that routinely advances the setting, in case you were thinking it might.
Overall, The Congress definitely remains something to look at, but not to be blown away by, as you (I) might have hoped. And it does not quite care enough about its themes to really pursue them in any rigorous, truly meaningful way.
But if it's a failure, it's a very, very near one, so near I can't even quite call it one way or the other. Such is always more frustrating than an outright worthless film. With great moments and great ideas wedged between ugly and incomprehensible ones, all I can say is, "God bless this mess." Hell, someone needs to.