It's been a good year for science fiction on the big screen, from Jonathan Glazer's innovative indie Under the Skin to enjoyable Hollywood fare like Lucy and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's The Congress builds on that trend with a wildly imaginative, dystopian vision of our digital media-saturated future. The film was inspired by Stanislaw Lem's satirical 1971 sci-fi novel, The Futurological Congress, in which a constant and government-sanctioned flow of hallucinogenic drugs has permanently blurred the line between fantasy and reality. The Congress imagines a newly pharmacological Hollywood, purveyor of a mix of drugs and digital media that has everyone living inside their own self-directed movies. It's a cautionary tale that doesn't strain believability in the slightest.
The Congress connects with modern-day culture by placing actress Robin Wright at the center of its story as a fictionalized version of herself. Known for hit movies including The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump — both in real life and in The Congress — Wright receives an offer that feels more like a threat. Former employer Miramount Studios wants to digitize her physical presence and personality for future use in films. The big payoff comes with a catch: She can never act again, anywhere, because the studio will effectively own her and decide for itself how she'll be used. (Hilariously, Wright tries to stipulate that she not appear in sci-fi movies.) Folman came up with the idea for the story just before director James Cameron brought the basic technique into the real world by using motion-capture technology and computer-generated characters in Avatar. The giant spherical scanning machine depicted in the film is a real one currently in use at the University of Southern California.
Folman takes his story further into the future in two 20-year leaps, and this is where the film finds its own path and runs into some trouble. As digital media blends with everyday life in the story, the film itself turns to animation. It stays in that mode for nearly half of its two-hour running time. The style intentionally recalls that of the Fleischer Brothers, who pioneered lifelike but trippy cartoons in the 1920s and '30s with characters like Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor Man. It took 2 1/2 years of round-the-clock work to create this portion of the film using the Fleischers' hand-drawn animation methods. (Folman used an entirely different set of techniques to make his award-winning 2008 animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir.) It's a dazzling achievement, and a perfect fit for the film's subject matter. But the story eventually gets a bit muddled and hard to follow, as Folman seems to get lost in an elaborate maze of his own device.
As flaws go, a little over-ambition is not hard to take — especially in service of a film as rich with ideas and insight as The Congress. Folman seems to hold out hope that filmmaking, and the culture at large, won't succumb to the depersonalizing nature of digital media. His film is a small step in the right direction.