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Zack Mosley [Celluloid 10.07.13] scifi animation

Our planet has yet to produce a finer science fiction writer than Stanislaw Lem. I'm just one man with an opinion here, but personally I give Lem the edge over Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick (who upon receiving an admiring letter from Lem believed him to be a "composite (Marxist) committee rather than an individual, since he writes in several styles"), and anyone else you care to name. Erecting his monolithic body of work on the shoulders of Wells and Stapledon, Lem's books blaze with philosophical insight, convention-shattering technique, and savage wit. He believed science fiction could be more than just genre pap, insisting that it should be the bleeding edge of science and technology, the philosophical avant-garde of real-world progress.

Like many Lem fans, I discovered the Polish author through the film versions of Solaris, but over the years I've read almost all of the available English translations of his work. "The Futurological Congress" is one of my favorites, a lighter and breezier reading experience than heavyweights like "Solaris," "Fiasco" and "His Master's Voice." Imagine Hunter S. Thompson wandering into a Philip K. Dick plot and you're halfway there. Recurring Lem protagonist Ijon Tichy arrives at the Hilton hotel in Costa Rica to attend the World Futurological Congress (on the problem of overpopulation), and finds himself caught in a conflict between a hostile government and fomenting political protests. He receives a dose of hallucinogens from the hotel tap water (or so he thinks) and experiences vivid fear and loathing. Could the government (who begins bombing the hotel in short order) be dosing people with "benignimizers"? He flees to the sewer and converses with man-sized rats, dies in a helicopter crash in an escape attempt, wakes up post-brain transplant in the body of a hot black woman. Tichy sustains another attack (from protesters this time) and the decision is made to freeze him until medical science can help him. He wakes up decades later, Rip Van Winkle style, to a Utopian society. But gradually he figures out that everyone is just constantly ingesting hallucinogens in order to fabricate the surface Utopia, and that the real worth underneath has lapsed into utter shit. Or is Tichy just experiencing the ultimate trip, still hallucinating from bad tap water? Written in 1971, "The Futurological Congress" serves as one of the earliest portrayals of virtual reality in fiction, and is as revolutionary as any literature that came out of the American counter-cultural scene, with (presumably) less drugs to help it along in development.

But enough background information, you're here for a review of Ari Folman's The Congress, and I thank you for bearing with me. The first half of the movie has nothing to do with Lem's novel. Robin Wright plays herself, kinda. Her agent (Harvey Keitel) gives her shit for turning down roles, making bad choices, and generally being difficult over the years. A slimy exec from "Miramount" (Danny Huston) claims that she hasn't had a hit since Forrest Gump, and that she never lived up to the promise of The Princess Bride. So he offers her the chance to scan her body into the 'puter, a final contract that would allow her to retire while her photo-realistic digital double does all the work. She refuses the call at first, but her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is going deaf and blind, and according to questionable advice from her doctor (Paul Giamatti) will probably be living in virtual reality in the not-too-distant future anyway. So Robin agrees to scan herself into the 'puter and we jump forward 20 years, joining Robin as she drives up to a strange way station in the middle of the desert and enters an animated world to attend the "Futurist Congress" as a special guest of Miramount. From this point on (I'd guess it's just shy of the mid-point), Folman samples a few elements of the Ijon Tichy plot I described above, but only loosely. Robin trips out on tap water, survives a terrorist attack, swoons for some dude who fell in love with her while animating her over the years (voice of Jon Hamm), wakes up in a Utopian society, realizes the Utopic aspects are hallucinatory, goes looking for her son, etc. It's hard to make sense of the plot in summary form, but suffice to say that from a story perspective, Folman has added quite a bit of muddled nonsense to the perfectly functional source material.

It's apparent from the liberties taken in Folman's adaptation that the Israeli filmmaker behind the excellent Waltz With Bashir has an axe to grind with Hollywood. The subtext is clear. A phenomenally talented actress like Robin Wright is rejected by an industry that wants commodities instead of artists. She reaches a crossroads where she must sell out or quit, and she is coerced into selling out. Hollywood steals her essence and uses it to manufacture a grotesque virtual reality. When confronted with this reality and forced to live within it, Robin's mind gradually rebels. The inhabitants of this reality, however, are pacified by it. They constantly sniff hallucinogens, living behind the facades of famous faces (Tom Cruise, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe among them). In the underneath reality, they're random unfortunates, shambling around in rags. Gee, they're just like celebrity-obsessed viewers, fixating on fluff as the world goes to shit around them! None of this is very subtle, and much of it is directly expounded upon through clumsy passages of dialogue.

Perhaps if I had not been such a fan of Lem's novel, I would be more receptive to this industry critique, but these themes come across like the contrarian sentiments of a petulant film school student. Hollywood makes a lot of crappy "sci-fi," but it's hard to be disdainful of Hollywood sci-fi on the weekend that Gravity touched down. (It's not really sci-fi, but I digress.) It's also hard to take the doom mongers of cinema seriously, as they point at digital cameras or 3D or sequels or remakes as the final nail in the coffin of quality filmmaking. There are dozens of great movies every year, regardless of who makes them, where they were made or how much money was spent on them. I understand the notion that cinema is a different medium than the novel, and that creative translations must be made in any successful adaptation. I understand the inclination to make movies "about cinema," to speak to the current state of cinema, and to attempt resonance through layers. Yeah dude, meta. And I also concede that the blank slate of the Ijon Tichy character would need significant remodelling in order to make the role inhabitable by an actor. But in nearly every instance, Folman's revisions dilute the potency of the source material, repurposing Lem's ideas for his own half-cooked agenda.

So let's assume you haven't read Lem's novel. Odds are, you haven't. Are you going to end up griping about The Congress like your humble? I will try to keep at least one paragraph free of Lem-based critique, starting... now. Robin Wright is always a pleasure to watch, and this role opens her up in a very personal way. The supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at. But the big draw of The Congress is the visual style. Sadly, I found this aspect lacking in some respects. The real-world segments have the flat, over-lit appearance of network TV. The animated segments fare better, containing many eye-popping visual gags, surrealist flourishes and cartoon cameos. There are shades of Bakshi, Crumb and Steadman walking around with Clint Eastwood and Yoko Ono. Folman has developed the technique he used in Waltz With Bashir to a new degree of sophistication, and the visuals in the animated segments are almost worth the price of admission. But they never come close to breaking any new ground, this film is no Akira. The aesthetic matches the content. The Congress is a hodge-podge, interesting in spurts but lacking overall unity. It may bowl you over with its sheer nuttiness, but it withers under intellectual scrutiny.

I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed. An 80% faithful version of "The Futurological Congress," starring Robin Wright as Ijon Tichy and rotoscoped in Folman's surreal style, could have been a triumph of adaptation along the lines of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. Instead we have a weird-ass movie about Robin Wright. I can only imagine that the notoriously cantankerous Lem, critical of both Tarkovsky and Soderbergh's versions of Solaris (a masterpiece and a damn good movie, respectively, both comparatively more faithful to the novel than they're given credit for), would have hated Folman's departures from his book. He held science fiction to a very high standard, demanding that an inherently fantastical genre conform to logic like a mathematical proof. The Congress lands far afield of this philosophy, and so I judge it as harshly as I imagine Lem would. Cinematic science fiction can be better than this. It can meet the Lem standard.

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