Review: ‘The Congress’ envisions a future dystopian virtual reality

Robin Wright in "The Congress."

In “The Congress,” an ambitiously trippy and compulsively watchable dystopian saga from Israeli writer-director Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”) adapting a novel by Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem, Robin Wright gamely and effectively plays a version of herself.

First, she’s the artistically fickle, fortysomething star of the present, pushed by her agent (Harvey Keitel) and a studio head (Danny Huston, perfectly slimy) to preserve her likeness digitally so she can “star” in movies indefinitely as a photo-realistic avatar while devoting real time to a son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) going blind and deaf.

Twenty years later, she’s a rebranded action megastar attending — in animated form, thanks to a vial of chemicals — a “congress” on the future of movies. The event reveals itself to be a vision of human evolution in which drugs let us “be” anything — a made-up creature or your favorite celebrity — in an idyllic virtual environment. She meets the animator (Jon Hamm’s voice) who engineered her digital career, and that forces her to confront the aftermath of a world indulged by fantasy and submerged identity.

Alternately serious-minded and phantasmagoric, and given melancholic heft by Wright, Folman’s hybrid of live action and Toontown-ish animation (think “Fritz the Cat” director Ralph Bakshi meets Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer) is occasionally brilliant, even if its narrative and philosophical threads don’t always weave cohesively. But in conjuring a fantastical slippery slope in which technology, pharmaceuticals and the entertainment industry co-star in a takeover of our lives, “The Congress” boasts a propulsive image-making pull.



“The Congress.”

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.


Playing: At Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles.