As Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn discovered, it’s a strange experience to attend your own funeral. Robin Wright gets to do just that in the head-turning sci-fi fantasy The Congress, because director Ari Folman (Waltz With Bashir) has turned Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress into a eulogy for the art of movie acting. The Congress opens with a close-up of Wright crying, one of the most demanding tasks an actor can be called upon to perform on camera; meanwhile an offscreen voice, addressing Wright by her own name, reviews the long history of bad personal and professional choices that have led her career to a dead end. The voice belongs to her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), who’s brought her an offer from the Hollywood studio Miramount; as explained by producer Jeff Green (Danny Huston), the studio will pay her for the privilege of scanning every inch of her face and body, creating a digitized Robin Wright that it can do with as it pleases, and forcing her into permanent retirement.
As she learns to her dismay, actors are a thing of the past. “I need Buttercup from Princess Bride,” Green explains. “I need Jenny from Forrest Gump. . . . I don’t need you. I need you only for your history. . . . Robin, your career is almost over. You fell off the top a long time ago. . . . We’re at war, Robin. Any actor who hasn’t signed in the next six months is dead, gone, characters erased from the screen forever. You’ll be back on all fours begging me to sample you.” Interviewed about the film, Wright has been quick to point out that the character isn’t exactly her, and in fact her career is going pretty well these days, thanks especially to her starring role on the red-hot Netflix series House of Cards. But the 21st-century dystopia of The Congress isn’t so far removed from reality; as Wright has also noted, she’s already been scanned into hard drives for her roles in Robert Zemeckis’s digital animations Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009). How long will it take for the studios to turn actors into data that can be manipulated completely, freeing themselves once and for all from the demands of these finicky, high-strung artists?
Not long after Robin makes her deal with the devil, The Congress leaps 20 years into the future, shifts from live action to animation, engages more directly with Lem’s novel about a futuristic conference and bizarre psychotropic drugs, and gradually implodes. For its first half, though, it’s a wicked satire of the modern movie business, in which gigantic star salaries have become a drain on profits and executives dream of a world in which Tom Cruise, Will Smith, and other international commodities can be more easily controlled and exploited. Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that actors should be treated like cattle; the digital age offers tantalizing new possibilities for turning them into steak.