Is it better to live a happy life of fantasy or to be unhappy knowing the truth? Are the choices we make truly free, or do social pressures coerce us? If you could choose to be someone else, would you rather be Jesus Christ or Ron Jeremy?
These questions roll around like a bag of loose marbles in “The Congress,” a part-live action, part-animated movie about a washed-up actress who unwillingly ushers in a brave new world of drug induced entertainment. Directed by Ari Folman and starring Robin Wright as a fictional version of herself, “The Congress” is a brilliant spectacle and a chaotic sci-fi story, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It is also unlike anything I have ever seen.
Folman, 53, is the director of “Waltz With Bashir,” the groundbreaking 2008 animated documentary about his experience as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1982 Lebanon War. “The Congress,” which is roughly based on “The Futurological Congress,” a 1971 novella by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, departs from that personal and historical territory. But in addition to the part-digital, part-traditional animation techniques invented for “Bashir,” and a hypnotic soundtrack by Max Richter, “The Congress” shares similar concerns with memory and consciousness, subjective experiences and objective fact. Only here the setting isn’t war-torn Beirut, but a hallucinatory future in which psychotropic good times have supplanted reality itself.
At the outset of the movie, Wright’s agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), and Jeff Green (Danny Huston), a sleazy executive of the wryly named Miramount Studios, are trying to convince Wright to accept a contract they say will be her last: to be scanned by the studio and turned into a digital character for the next 20 years.
It is, Green explains, the end of an era. From now on, all characters will be portrayed not by real actors, but by their indistinguishable digital counterparts. Meanwhile, Wright is preoccupied with the future of her daughter, Sarah (Sami Gayle), and son, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who suffers from Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder that is robbing him of his hearing and sight. Reluctantly, she agrees to the deal.
Twenty years later Wright is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet for her role as “Rebel Robot Robin, Street Fighter,” a heroine who battles for the rights of robots. This isn’t Wright herself, of course — it’s her digital avatar, which is owned by Miramount. But thanks to her celebrity, and to the fact that her contract is up, she is invited to speak at the Futurist Congress, a gathering held by the studio at the Abrahama Hotel, inside a “restricted animated zone.”
The phrase “restricted animated zone,” though silly, isn’t the biggest problem with “The Congress.” The excessive length of the live action section — a tedious first act that takes up an entire third of the movie — is a worse flaw, and it makes the story as a whole feel unbalanced. But the phrase is typical of the film’s confusing depiction of its imagined future, even if that confusion is fitting for what may be a series of nested hallucinations.
Within the world of the movie, the Futurist Congress isn’t animated, exactly, but chemically manipulated to appear animated. Here reality is colored by hallucinogens of immense sophistication, drugs that enable their users to experience, and to be experienced, however they like.