The Congress

Last night the ex and I watched “The Congress” (2013, dir/screenplay Ari Folman). That was a complicatedly flawed movie.

It is, somewhat, sort of, based on a book by Stanislaw Lem. I have not read the book in question but Wikipedia’s synopsis of it suggests that there is very little remaining of the book beyond a most general outline of “it’s kinda like the Matrix except everyone takes hallucinatory drugs instead of being jacked into a simulation of the late eighties”.

The first act is about an actress whose career is going downhill. The movie studios are in the process of replacing all actors with scanned simulations; she is offered a chance to be scanned for what we must assume is a huge amount of money (it’s never really specified; we’re never even really told that ‘this is a fuckton of money’; it’s vaguely implied that this may be enough to attempt to cure her son’s slowly-worsening vision and hearing problems) at the absurd, cartoon evil cost of the studio owning all rights to her identity for the purposes of Acting, putting “her” simulation to any use they please, and her never acting again. That last feels completely over the top, and resulted in it getting paused for us to discuss how cartoonishly implausible this feels for a movie that was, so far, presenting itself a Slow, Thoughtful, Sci-Fi movie. There were a lot of characters delivering lengthy speeches at each other about why this new regime was either a terrible thing or a great thing; the speeches for this absurd point were pretty unconvincing. It was clear that we were supposed to be on the side of “this is bad”.

Near the end of this part, there is a scene wherein the actress has agreed to have herself scanned. The technician who’s going to scan her used to be a prominent cinematographer, but with the advent of entirely-simulated actors, apparently this is all the work he can get.

At which point I paused it and ranted. No. No. You’re telling us this guy is a master of his craft? Unless the entire moviemaking process has been replaced with AI, there is still a place for him; movies still need someone to decide how they will be shot and staged, and there is no reason he could not pick up the basics of the new tools, or work with some apprentices who know the tools but do not have his deep knowledge of How To Think About A Film’s Shots.

(I will admit that I currently have Opinions about this. The animated TV show I’ve been kicking around ideas for the past year? I want to do as much of it as possible with successive layers of performance capture. Let the actors do their job by improvising around the script and giving the characters chemistry, pick the best takes, drop their facial and body motion into the 3D models, have the animators overlay their own gesturing and puppeting, render it with a ton of style. Collaborative cyborg performances, bring them on, I’m ready, and the last thing I want to do is drop the actors out – I want to put them in crazy virtual suits and let them do what they’ve trained long and hard to do.)

Later on, after a time jump, a major character is the studio’s lead animator on her. It is made explicit that there are still lots of people working behind the scenes to make movies, and they are treated little better than the sources for the actor scans they puppet. But we are not intended to like this animator for very long; he’s developed a creepy crush on her during the twenty years he animated an increasingly devolved caricature of her. We’re shown some scenes of a terrible schlocky film “she” starred in, which is at about the quality level of a 1950s Flash Gordon serial. And of publicity interviews “she” gave.

There is also a bunch of stuff involving a beautifully-realized Toontown VR that is sometimes a series of solipsistic disconnected drug hallucinations and sometimes somehow completely connected and shared, a chunk of time with our heroine in cryostorage, a huge chunk of the world’s population living in squalor while being happily inside these hallucinations, and the actress trying to find her son (who ironically gave up waiting and went into Solipstistic Chemical Dream Cartoon World six months before she was defrosted). And it’s pretty and kinda incoherent and really kinda drops the argument of the first act of the film about whether or not New Movie-Making Technology Is Bad. Which left me disappointed because I was really hoping to see the film attempt to argue the opposite side of this “virtual actors are a terrible thing that will kill the industry forever” point of view. Arguably spending two-thirds of its running time creating an elaborate animated fantasy world via a somewhat small crew spread out across the entire globe and a lot of rotoscoping is silently arguing something close to my opinions, but not when the Evil Studio Exec from the first act shows up as Literally A Nazi and the lead animator is presented as having a creepy one-sided romantic obsession with our heroine.

I dunno. It was really pretty. And it started to ask some interesting questions about where the future of the entertainment industry is going. But it sure had a big ol’ technophobic axe to grind in the first act that it just completely forgot about for a lot of the rest of the movie.