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The Congress

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I had read several positive comments about this film, but no detailed reviews, before I got the DVD as a rental from Netflix. After that, I went looking for the source story, Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress. I was still on the first page when I realized writer/director Folman had taken great liberties in his adaptation. The credits show the film is "based on" Lem's story, but I've read a comment from Folman that it was more "suggested by," and even that is a stretch. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the two versions do have completely different perspectives. I have since watched the movie again (it's now available streaming on Amazon Prime) and re-read the story. I like both, and while it is hard to say which I like more, they are both recommended.

Ijon Tichy from the book is replaced by Robin Wright in the film, portraying herself, although several particulars of her life are fictitious. Also, the Futurist Congress doesn't take place until twenty years after the initial scenario in the movie. It opens with Wright's agent (Keitel) informing her of a current offer from the studio, but he claims he doesn't know any details. She takes a meeting with one of the studio heads (Huston), who tells her the offer is the last that Miramount Studios will ever present to her, regardless of her decision. It seems CGI technology has progressed to the point that an actor's likeness, voice, expressions and body movements can be scanned and sampled, and thereafter the actor only exists as a character in the studio's computers. If she signs the contract she will no longer be able to act in any capacity, films, television, theater, commercials, whatever.

She initially rejects the offer, but it is still on the table for thirty days, and her agent and her daughter (Gayle) are able to convince her it would be wise to accept it. Among the fictitious elements of Wright's life is her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-Mcphee), who I initially thought was autistic, and that might still apply, but his main problems are physical, the impending loss of sight and hearing. The studio chief had complained of Wright's continuous disruptions of film productions, canceling at the last minute or abrupt departure from sets, all in order to take care of Aaron at critical moments. He implies that she has made many bad decisions, and that her career is over unless she accepts his offer. I know that is fictitious, since Wright has worked continuously since she burst on the scene as The Princess Bride, and has won awards for her recent work on Netflix's House of Cards. In any case, she eventually decides to sign the contract since she knows it will allow her to devote all her time to Aaron's care.

Here the film jumps forward twenty years, and it is almost a totally different movie thereafter. It could have continued to develop the idea of computerized actors, of how that changed the financial and social impact of the film industry, as well as how it affected the lives of stars who are then only known as their digitized selves. Then again, that movie would have had no connection to Lem's story at all, and at least a few of his ideas are utilized. The action picks up with Wright speeding along a desert highway in a sleek sports car. She stops at a guard post and is given an ampule of some drug, which she breaks and inhales. The guard tells her that once she passes his post she will be in the Miramount-Abrahama "Animated Zone," and will remain in that state until she sees him again. This sequence also doesn't have much to do with The Futurological Congress, but rather resembles an homage to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The animation is similar to 1940's era Tex Avery or Max Fleischer cartoons, and appears to be of the old school drawn variety rather than computer generated, although I could be wrong, because the traditional style might be even more expensive than if the subsequent scenes had been done with real actors and CGI.

However, there are a few nods to events in the book, as Wright takes an elevator to her room at the Miramount-Abrahama Hotel, a hundred or so floors above the animated landscape. When in her room she takes a drink of water from the tap, then orders room service. Something mentioned in the story but then discarded as an impossiblilty is used in the film, a supersonic elevator that allows a robotic server to deliver her meal about two seconds after her order is placed. But then, as in the story, all power goes off in her room, and like Tichy, she rolls up her receipt and sticks it in a tub of butter and lights it like a candle. She starts to experience hallucinations and realizes the water has been drugged. The power is eventually restored and she is able to make it down to the ballroom where the Futurist Congress is about to convene, where she is scheduled to make an opening statement. Even though she has not acted in twenty years, her digitized character of Red Robot Robin has become famous in a series of science fiction films. There seems to be a mix-up in continuity here, because the Congress was supposed to be where Miramount-Abrahama announced a new drug which would allow anyone to experience life as anyone they choose, but we have already seen many around the hotel who appear as other film stars (Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name, for example), as well as several Elvis Presleys, Frank Sinatras, Marilyn Monroes, etc. There are even multiples of Red Robot Robin walking around. Others appear as famous paintings, such as Magritte's Son of Man or Picasso's Portrait of Paulo, or mythical creatures like Anubis or Krishna.

Here begins more scenes that are derived from the book, so if you haven't already read that review, you might want to compare this with some of the comments I made there. An assassin shoots the emcee of the Congress and activists fire on and storm the hotel, Wright is rescued by a man named Dylan (Hamm) and they make it to the hotel's basement, where many of the hotel's management have also taken refuge. Wright is still experiencing hallucinations, but of course it is hard to tell since everything is animated and non-realistic anyway. Military personnel extract her from the basement and she is transported to a helicopter and flown away from the hotel. It crashes after running into a large kite flown by Wright's son Aaron, or at least that seems to be what happens. We learned early in the film that kite-flying was one of Aaron's hobbies. When she regains consciousness she is told it has been twenty years and she has been in suspended animation. By the way, she gets this information from someone who resembles Grace Jones, so it is possible she is still hallucinating everything. Dylan reappears too, and he tells her that she can remain in this idyllic world, or if she would prefer, he knows of a chemical that will bring her back to reality. She chooses the latter since she wants to find Aaron again.

I know there are some who are very averse to spoilers in reviews, and some may feel I've already revealed too much, but I think it is just enough to give you an inkling of what I think of the movie. I haven't said much about the future(?) world that Robin and Dylan experience, or what she sees after imbibing the drug to re-establish reality (whatever that might mean in this context). I do feel I need to say a bit more, so the next paragraph will definitely contain spoilers, for the movie and book. Skip it if you want.

[Begin Spoilers] In the book, it is speculated that it is the government that has drugged the populace to be happy and to ignore reality, which is poverty and social collapse. Instead of dining in fine restaurants they are actually slurping slop from troughs like pigs. Apparently the cost of producing those drugs was infinitely cheaper than actually correcting the problems that led to those dire circumstances. But of course Ijon Tichy didn't actually end up in the future by any means, he was still in the hotel's basement hallucinating everything. Even though I've seen the movie twice, I still can't say with any assurance what the ending means. Was Robin hallucinating everything? Why did she go to the Congress at all, since her acceptance of Miramount's contract was to stay with Aaron? Did she even go to the hotel, animated or otherwise, or did she remain at the guard house until the drug wore off? If we are to accept those events as things that really happened we have to assume she did end up in the future, she did imbibe the drug that brought her back to the realization of what had happened to society in the interim, and that she had lost Aaron because he had given up waiting for her to return, then taken a drug himself which transported him to that hallucinatory world. There is no guarantee she could find him if she went back since she wouldn't know who or what he might have chosen to look like. I suppose it is possible that everything after the scanning of Robin is a dream, something she invisions the world might be like in twenty years with such technology leading the way. [End of Spoilers]

The acting of everyone is excellent, from Wright to Smit-Mcphee, Huston to Gayle, Giamatti (Aaron's doctor) to Hamm (even though we only hear his voice). The dialogue is realistic and poignant, the animation lively and colorful, and the cinematography of the live-action is crisp and beautiful. One particular scene was the most emotionally satisfying for me. It features a monologue by Keitel as he talks to Wright when she abruptly stops the scanning process. It brought tears and laughter to both characters, and to me as well. He should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for that scene alone. The ending is a challenge, but in a good way. Other than the confusion of what happens to Wright at the Congress, or if any of that happened at all, I enjoyed the film and just rated it 7 out of 10 on IMDb. If you're a Prime member you've got nothing to lose but a couple of hours, but I feel confident you won't think the time will be wasted.


Related Link:
My review of Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress.


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Ari Folman

July 24, 2014

Robin Wright
Harvey Keitel
Sami Gayle
Kodi Smit-McPhee
Jon Hamm
Paul Giamatti
Danny Huston
Michael Stahl-David
Michael Landes
Sarah Shahi

Full Credits at IMDb

On DVD, Blu-Ray
and Amazon Prime