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An illustration of Robin Wright standing next to a person resembling Elvis Presley in a fantastical landscape of exotic flowers and distant skyscrapers. Image: Drafthouse Films

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The Congress’ live action, animation, and AI combo makes it the most 2023 movie

Ari Folman’s dystopian drama was both ahead of its time and a chilling warning of a possible world to come

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Toussaint Egan is an associate curation editor, out to highlight the best movies, TV, anime, comics, and games. He has been writing professionally for over 8 years.

It feels like you can’t go a day without hearing about some new and bewildering application of AI technology.

From online personalities like Twitch streamer Amouranth creating a companion chatbot modeled after her to James Earl Jones’ iconic portrayal of Darth Vader being immortalized by a Ukrainian AI firm, the rise of these technologies has caused a schism throughout the entertainment industry. The current Writers Guild of America strike is owed in part to fears that AI will be used to undermine the labor of writers and directors. That’s not even getting into the concerns of how these technologies coalesce with deepfake technology designed to undermine our concept of shared reality and weaponize our biases and preferences, or how AI is being used to create lackluster imitations of artists’ work on a whim.

All of this has me thinking about The Congress, Ari Folman’s 2013 hybrid-animated sci-fi drama starring Robin Wright. Based on Stanisław Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself who, 23 years after her breakout role in The Princess Bride, is in the downslope of her career. Strapped for money to care for her ailing son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and with no one willing to hire her, Robin is offered a one-time deal to sell her likeness to the fictional “Miramount Studios” and quit acting. The alternative is to be consigned to the ash heap of history and virtually not “exist” from that point on, as studios will outright refuse to employ flesh-and-blood actors.

Robin Wright standing in the middle of a motion-capture camera rig in The Congress. Image: Drafthouse Films

When the deal is pitched, Miramount executive Jeff Green (Danny Huston) tells Robin they want to scan “all of” her. “Your body, your face, your emotion, your laughter, your tears, your climaxing, your happiness, your depressions, your fears [and] longings. We want to sample you, we want to preserve you, we want… all of this, this thing called… Robin Wright.” It’s a chilling scene that hammers home the core question of the film: What is the importance of humans creating art, and do audiences even care?

Folman, who had been working on the script for the film for over 19 years, was amazed by how his original idea of a machine that scans and records a person’s likeness already existed in reality. The scene in which Robin is scanned features an elaborate 360-degree camera rig similar to those used by video game companies like Kojima Productions and Santa Monica Studio to record actors’ performances in order to create high-quality in-game models. “When I wrote it, I had no clue that coming to LA I would see this unbelievable scanning machine at USC where we could shoot the scene,” Folman said in a 2013 interview with IndieWire. “It was already there, everything was ready for us.”

About 48 minutes in, The Congress switches mediums entirely, as the barren expanse of the Mojave Desert is transformed into a phantasmagorical wonderland rendered in a Fleischer-inspired animation à la Betty Boop or Popeye the Sailor. In The Congress, commercial psychedelics and algorithmically generated entertainment have created a world where the wealthy and powerful are wholly removed from reality, allowing themselves to craft their likenesses to resemble any of the innumerable characters and actors whose likenesses are owned by Miramount Studios.

Robin Wright striking a posing in a gold and black leather costume in The Congress. Image: Drafthouse Films

Upon arriving at Abrahama City, the luxury headquarters of Miramount in the future, a now animated version of the “real” Robin Wright is shown a commercial for an action film starring her digitally replicated self, as well as a press interview in which this artificial Robin impassionately discusses the film’s social relevance. It’s a scene that firmly drives home The Congress’ thematic focus on the commodification of art and the alienation of artistic labor. Robin Wright the person has been severed from Robin Wright the brand, and the distress of this separation causes the former to lash out against the artifice of this strange, frightening future in search of genuine connection.

Robin learns the entertainment industry as she knows it will be replaced by a process in which customers will simply marinate in the comfort afforded by nostalgia. “This whole structure won’t exist,” Jeff tells Robin. “The scriptwriter who needs his antidepressants; the ex-Russian storyboard artist with the drinking problem; the animators always behind deadline; those idiots who fall in love with their computer characters; the special effects people — they can all go and fuck themselves.” The Congress is a film that taps into the anti-art sentiments of our current age, and forecasts a future where our humanity is forfeited in exchange for mindless surface-level gratification.

An animated Robin Wright stands in a hotel lobby surrounded by cartoonish characters in The Congress. Image: Drafthouse Films

The Congress vacillates wildly between reality and fiction, leaping across time and mediums to paint an impending post-human future where people are no longer capable of discerning the difference between what feels good and what is true and personal. It’s a profoundly exaggerated dystopia, but one that nonetheless feels uncannily in sync with our current cultural moment. A time where art across all mediums is increasingly conflated with “content” and artists of all stripes are merely “content creators,” where parasocial relationships between celebrities and audiences grow increasingly more prevalent, and where the the labor of artists, animators, directors, screenwriters, and more is disparaged while that labor becomes ever more indispensable to a culture obsessed with the breathless perpetuation of IP-driven entertainment.

Like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, The Congress is a movie that feels unmistakably of its time and yet simultaneously ahead of it. It’s disorienting and strange, a phantasmagorical odyssey of an aging star arguing passionately for the value of human art and human connection in a world that has retreated into itself in order to cope with an ever more uncertain future. It is, without a doubt, the most 2023-ass movie of 2013.

The Congress is available to stream on Hulu.

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