Since America’s recent election, sales for George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 have soared, becoming Amazon’s number one bestseller. Many are hypersensitive at this time to what seems dystopian, to what looks like the birth pangs of socially acceptable tyranny. It’ll be interesting to see if the desire to consume this other world genre continues to skyrocket in upcoming years in our current political climate.
A great place to start in satisfying the dystopian urge is Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir)’s The Congress. In my opinion, it’s one of the most underrated films in the genre.
The Congress has had a long release across the world from 2013 to 2016, but chances are, you probably haven’t heard about it. It was easy to miss. It wasn’t widely released in cinemas, went straight to VOD and it was sadly ignored by the awards seasons. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that its main theme criticizes the entertainment industry. Drafthouse films claims that it chose to release on VOD because “Intelligent, star-driven science fiction does well in the VOD space.” Whatever the reason, its neglect is most unfortunate.
In The Congress, Robin Wright, playing herself, is presented with an offer from the production company Miramount to sell the rights to…well, herself. Miramount would like to create a hologram of Robin Wright so that they can use her image in any number of movies. “We want to own this thing called Robin Wright,” the exec says. The software Wright would never grow old and would not inconvenience the production company with all of the annoying qualities of the human actress such as her opinion, preference or personal problems.
They want to make an inhuman Robin Wright, who embodies everything Wright is. The hologram can act in whatever style or tone the production company would like her to. This Robin Wright is always ready, always the same, always exactly what the company wants.
Having real life Robyn Wright play the character Robyn Wright, provides an additional layer of dystopian critique. It places this not-so-distant future into a world that we know. The Robin Wright in the movie is famous for The Princess Bride just as she is in our world. The film thus lends itself to an immediate connection to our world. It is, as Wright said in an interview about The Congress, “an exaggerated version of a reality that is existing today.”
The Wright in the film does not take the offer lightly. In fact, at first she does not take it at all. “It is the gift of choice that is being taken away,” she says to her agent Al (Harvey Keitel). Al insists to the contrary that scanning (the process of creating a hologram of the actor) has the same self-robbing nature acting has always had. Except it is better, he adds, because it takes away the hardship of being an actor. “We are saved!” he declares.
This struggle comprises the first half of the film. The second half leads to a very different world. One where Wright takes a hallucinogenic drug to enter a virtual reality called Abrahama — a world of pure entertainment, pure illusion and where desires are converted into reality. It’s at this point that The Congress begins resembling the novel it’s based on and where the execution of the story really comes alive. Now as much as I’d love to tell you about this, I don’t want to spoil the surprise. It’s well worth it.
Abrahama is where The Congress takes on bigger themes than the entertainment industry and Robin Wright’s acting career. It comes to concern every individual person as they embrace the virtual reality of this other world. “Abrahama is going to be our life!” says a speaker at an event celebrating the future of virtual reality. He claims they have cracked the chemical formula of free choice. Now, everyone can have everything they want.
What becomes of actual real life is a grim picture. Virtual reality is an escape from the pain and suffering that comprises real life, which only becomes more painful as it undergoes universal neglect. If “the price of apathy toward public affairs is to be ruled by evil men,” as Plato said, what is the price of total neglect of reality altogether?
The Congress eerily portrays how the pursuit of pleasure and free choice are perfectly compatible with tyranny. If people understand themselves as free and can pursue pleasure as much as they want, they won’t be led to question authority or challenge the powers that be.
Ultimately The Congress asks, what is true freedom? Is it simply the ability to gratify yourself and do whatever you want? Does it only concern you, or is it tied to the freedom of others? Maybe our unquestioned freedom to indulge ourselves in media and all of its forms is a pacifier. Maybe it’s something that keeps us from resisting.