Shortly before the Screen Actors Guild began its ongoing strike, a list of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers’ proposed changes to the guild’s contract went public. One of those was a clause about digitally scanning background actors for a flat fee, so that the studio would own and be able to replicate their likeness “for the rest of eternity,” according to SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. (The AMPTP has disputed this last point, saying that the digital scans would be used in the film the actor is hired for, and any future use would be up for negotiation and compensation.) The idea that a film studio could own the physical identity of a person immediately gave everyone Black Mirror vibes, but there’s an even earlier film that predicted this inevitable conflict ten years ago: Ari Folman’s The Congress.
In the 2013 film, which is currently streaming on Peacock, Robin Wright plays a fictional version of herself, an aging actress whose undeniable talent has been countered her entire career by panic attacks, bad instincts, and generally being a pain to work with. Her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), brings her into a meeting with film studio “Miramount,” in which she’s offered the last acting contract she’ll ever sign. Miramount wants to scan and own her likeness, forever, a digital puppet that it will use in place of the real Robin Wright, who will star in any movie the studio wants and will never have to worry about being paid or fed or do something she doesn’t want to do. Tons of stars are already doing it: This is the future of entertainment. The onetime payout is the kind of enormous sum it’s impossible to refuse. One of Robin’s children (a young Kodi Smit-McPhee) is afflicted with a progressive illness, and the money would go toward his health care. The only catch is that the real Robin will never be allowed to act again.
Robin eventually takes the deal and enters the 3-D scanning machine, a sparkling hollow sphere of lights and cameras that capture her every movement and expression. To get some real feeling out of her, Al tells her the touching story of how he became an agent to the stars in the first place, and how much he loves her and her family. “This is your last performance,” he says as Robin breaks down in tears.
Twenty years later, Robin arrives at The Futurological Congress, Miramount’s entertainment gathering at a remote utopian city called Abrahama, a psychedelic Yellow Submarine–meets–Fleischer brothers “animation-only zone,” whose visitors are required to take hallucinogenic drugs in order to exist as animated avatars of themselves. (The event takes its name from the title of the 1971 book on which the movie is loosely based, Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, in which hallucinogenic substances cause an unraveling of reality itself.) Robin’s animated self, clad in a flowing red dress, appears older and more melancholy, her white hair coiled on top of her head, her eyes wide and exaggerated. She catches a glimpse of the trailer for digital Robin’s latest film, a sci-fi action movie in which she “plays” a robot superhero in a spandex outfit. It’s something the real Robin would never have agreed to, and it’s the latest in a widely beloved franchise bringing Miramount untold sums of money. Digital Robin is a star. Real Robin is just an old lady.
At first blush, it’s a lot like the plot of 2002’s S1M0NE, Andrew Niccol’s Hollywood satire about director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), whose star walks off the set before his latest film has finished production, forcing him to find a way to replace her without spending millions on reshoots. He uses a computer program to create a digital actress he names Simone (Rachel Roberts) and seamlessly inserts her into his film — and she becomes a megastar. The only problem is she isn’t real, and Viktor spends the rest of the movie coming up with increasingly demented ways to hide the truth from her rabid fans.
Niccol paints the early 2000s with echoes of the familiar Y2K-era suspicion of technology. Only a decade later, by the time The Congress rolled around, we could already imagine a world in which digital stars not only replaced real ones but were more popular. If a film studio created its own “Simone” today, how much pushback would it get from its audience before we accepted her?
In The Congress, the public has already embraced digital stars as their reality. Later in the film, Robin journeys to the far future, where the entertainment industry has subsumed reality itself and everyone takes drugs to be whomever or whatever they want to be. The real world has broken down into a Children of Men dystopia in shades of gray, the resistors waiting in food lines dressed in shabby, ripped clothing. Robin is searching for any sign of her son, although now that he can be anyone, she is unlikely to find him. The Congress debuted at the height of the film industry’s obsession with future dystopias and was critically acclaimed upon its release, opening the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight and winning Best Animated Feature Film at the 2013 European Film Awards, but it never quite broke through to a mainstream audience. Now that the Miramounts of the world are threatening to make it a reality, maybe it will get the recognition it deserves.
The Congress imagines a total breakdown of reality as we know it, if we choose to accept art made by computers manipulating digital versions of what once were people. The seeds are already blowing in the wind: Streaming services and social-media sites have been hypercurating content to suit their viewers, attempting to turn human whims into an easily deployable formula that serves us too much of the same thing; AI language models have made search engines unusable and grading school papers impossible; digital technology and haggard, undercompensated VFX houses have turned modern blockbusters into pixel soup. The uncanny future of The Congress is closer than we think.