Film Reviews

The Congress Ari Folman

Rating - 6/10

Above all, Ari Folman's hybrid film The Congress prides itself on being inclusive, which is characterized by its title - an ambitious project that utilizes live-action and animation in its own unique if flawed assembly of meta-melodrama and dystopian science fiction. Through this stylistic amalgam, it riffs on human identity, the discrepancy between technophiles and technophobes, bodily preservation, the expendability of the actor, and false prophecies of pharmacology. Many of these subjects are most intimately and recognizably linked to progressive sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick's works (with further visual significance in Linklater's 2006 film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly), but the source text actually belongs to Polish satirist Stanisław Lem's Futurological Congress, which was published in 1971.

The future is of great interest to the figureheads of Miramount Pictures in Hollywood (a sardonic splicing of Miramax Films and Paramount Pictures), who pitch to acclaimed actress Robin Wright an idea of preserving her public persona through an emotional digitization process. (One may remember her from such films as 1987's The Princess Bride and 1994's Forrest Gump, but most likely from Netflix's House of Cards). The forty-four-year-old actress plays a fictionalized version of herself who faces the crisis of her own aging in an industry that's interchangeable with prostitution, skewing younger to cater to idealized fantasies of the idolized demographics. Propositioned in the opening minutes, Wright initially resists but soon finds herself in desperation, agreeing upon a contract with Miramount that would keep her in a perpetual state of appearing thirty-four-years-old, but with limitations on the content in which she appears.

While contemplating the physical deterioration of the actress, The Congress also questions the physical roles humans have over themselves in the present moment and a twenty-year future; in the film's vision, control is sacrificed to the temptation of ultimate delusion through a huffing of chemically manufactured drugs. The visual decadence recalls (the decline of) Rome and Constantinople but more accurately resembles Toontown from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or "a genius designer's bad acid trip" as an animatedly transformed Wright quips. People in this phantasmagoric landscape called Abrahama City sacrifice identity for an everlasting entertainer ideal; among those represented are John Wayne, Elvis, and Michael Jackson. But in all these efforts to visually enliven the film with high tech and high ideas, The Congress ultimately becomes a shifting jumble of personal escalation to confounding grand-scale war between Hollywood (acting as "The State") and the rebels, a scope that is probably most indebted to Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) or Fassbinder's World on a Wire (1973) but not executed with the same sharp wit or fluidity.

The immensity of the film is anchored by a familial bond between Wright and her teenage son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an aspiring aviator like his ancestors, who suffers from a degenerative sensory disease that slowly deprives his sight and hearing. Contemporary society's worshipping of beauty and escapism is amplified tenfold in Abrahama City, where aesthetic pleasures become garishly animated self-parody. Aaron's real medical affliction continues to be ignored in ultimate favor of a collective society's drug-induced euphoria where nothing is permanent or meaningful, even if there's a haranguer shouting at a crowd of people, "Look at us!" about the supposed nirvana surrounding them. Despite several cues that bring Wright's attention to her former "live-action" life with her family, these bonds are heavily confined to the former half, fracturing the remainder of the film, as they continually force the story to become awkwardly intimate after it has ballooned to an indictment of the Hollywood studio system.

One could argue that Wright's relationship with Aaron is the catalyst to her decision to digitize herself, as she actively witnesses the deterioration of the human body on an accelerated timeline, but its execution is cloying and an ironic bit of Hollywood fakery. The Congress seems to consistently seek self-congratulations for its scathing critique of the movie industry while also indulging itself in various devices and tropes familiar to the general moviegoer. This contradiction instills the premise with a strange disassociating tension. As the film progresses, this notion becomes more apparent, with chance meetings that evoke cryptic clichés ("I know a lot more than you can imagine") and music cues to montage featuring a rendition of Forever Young. Even Wright's agent Al (Harvey Keitel)'s melodramatic recounting of his own agential ascent is mockingly treated as a device for her to complete the digitization process; while clever in the context of the film, it feels insincere in any effort to provoke audience engagement. This scene and many that precede it are composed with this snappily overwritten dialogue that lessens the seriousness of the executives' proposition to the actress.

It would make sense that this tonal imbalance is carried over to the uneven quality of the Max Fleischer-esque animation in the second half, a perfect metaphor for the film itself. Character movements are choppy, most models look unfinished (a sense of character age is not communicated accurately for a film that deals with senescent themes), and fanciful backgrounds are lush and untamed. Perhaps due to the age of the source text and confusions regarding a translation across forty years of startling technological innovation, The Congress' ambitious universe does not satiate modern movie audiences' needs for a truly progressive story. Instead, it is a sprawling, unsteady mess. This is just one more disconcertion considering Lem's original novella spans about 150 pages.