The Congressrecommended viewing

Put on your thinking cap
★★★★★
Released: 
2014
Director: 
Ari Folman
Starring: 
Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Kodi Smit-McPree, John Hamm, Danny Huston
The Setup: 
Actress is scanned into a computer and her existence drastically changes.... to say the least.
Discussion: 

Out of the blue [to me] comes this movie by Ari Folman, who gave us Waltz With Bashir, and is adapted from a novel by Stanislaw Lem, who as surely you know is the guy who wrote the novel adapted into Solaris. And if you've seen [or read] Solaris, you know that this guy is going to keep hurling ideas at you--and not like "Is everything just a dream?" ideas, either, but serious, badass ones--and you're going to get a good brain scrub, if not be pummeled to exhaustion. But how many movies these days really force you to think, and keep up? [though it's really not hard to follow if you pay attention.] This movie is a series of existential questions, delivered initially through a critique of the movie business, then things go mad and the entire second half is animated, and the existential questions just develop, and develop, and develop, and this movie isn't kidding--you need to seriously keep up. All that said, I fucking loved every second of it. It was a total, unexpected delight and a gift from the cinematic gods, especially if you're interested in film itself, what's happening to film now, and how its form might change in the future.

The setup: They want to scan Robin Wright into a computer, so they can generate any movie they want with her. That's the hook, but it really only covers the first half of the movie. We open with a long shot on Wright's face, as she hears a harsh appraisal of her career [that DOES really describe her career] and her "lousy choices," by her agent, Harvey Keitel as Al. We soon see that she has a young son, who seems to be autistic, and is getting worse. She is called into a meeting at Miramount Pictures [that's an amalgam of Miramax and Paramount] who also delivers a hilarious and harsh assessment of both her career and the state of the film industry. The movie emphatically does not try to convince us that Wright is a popular actress, but still makes a case that they need her. They need her to be sampled into a computer, and then they can make movies with her digital self in perpetuity. She has to agree never to act again, not even in local theater, and the character "Robin Wright" will live on, while she herself will vanish from the public eye.

All of this happens in conversations without any music, conversations which I found pretty riveting, as they touch on a lot of issues revolving around the reality or unreality of movies, actor versus character, preference for fantasy over reality, and also those old staples free will and the essence of being a person. They have a number of existential discussions, like if Robin Wright is making a bunch of movies, but the real person vanishes, which one is really her? Does she have rights over her own image and self anymore? Does she have any say in what "she" does? We soon see a demonstration of a movie made with generated actors, and Wright's daughter thinks it's "pretty good," which strikes her as a personal betrayal. She is told that every actor in Hollywood is lining up to be scanned, and that the payout she'll receive is a "one-off deal," i.e. they pay her once and can make as many movies as they like with her without further renumeration.

Now, her son, Aaron, is losing hearing and sight [the two senses involved in perceiving film, you'll note], and is living more and more in his own head, which, we are told, is "what movies will be like in fifty years." In order to fund treatments for him, Robin finally relents [they are making being scanned out as being inevitable], and agrees to be scanned. The scanning sequence is a showstopper. She steps into a huge half-sphere of lights and cameras, and they try to guide her to laugh, then let that slide into heartbreak. She tries, and the lights flash on different sides of her [it's a very simple way to get a great effect that delivers exponential value for the money], but finally breaks down and says she can't do it [which is a bit funny, as they have previously described her as temperamental and walking off sets]. Then Al starts talking to her, reminescing about the past, and making her laugh. The cameras go off. His story segues into how she's a shitty actress and will never be anything, which makes her cry and feel devastated; and the cameras go off. The whole sequence is an emotional humdinger, as you feel her very essence being taken from her, in a form of techo-vampirism, and the whole thing works so well you start to realize that mentioning this film in the same sentence as Solaris is not so off-base after all! Then: Ka-POW!

SPOILERS > > >
20 years later, we join Wright driving into a "restricted animated zone." She drives in and everything turns animated--we are essentially going into her life as a digitally-animated being, meaning that she has given up on existing as herself, which is quite bleak in itself. She checks into the Miramount Hotel, where the first thing she sees is a trailer starring her digital self for the umpteenth film in the "Rebel Robot Robin" series, an imbecilic sci-fi actioner that even Kate Beckensale might turn down, which is grimly ironic, as she stipulated in her contract: no science fiction. Further laughs come as we have a "behind-the-scenes" featurette--created using fake Robin, of course--in which she goes on tearfully about how the movie is so important because it's "so tragic for the robots." The hotel is where the stars go to vanish while their digital counterparts live on. Outside the windows is a burnt-up environmental wasteland. In her room, suddenly the lights go out, but since she is trapped within her own mind, "if you see the dark, you chose the dark." Soon after regaining the light, she meets Tom Cruise in Top Gun mode, complete with glowing white teeth.

Well, it's been 20 years since she's been digitized, and there's a new technology now: if Robin doesn't agree to become a substance that one can drink, and then hallucinate "Robin Wright," then her file will be deleted, and she will cease to exist. We meet Reed Fox, a Steve Jobs-esque figure, who is has, in an Apple-like technological breakthrough, patented free will and is going to give it--free--to everyone on the planet! Then there's a war, and for awhile the movie becomes a [hilarious] parody of an action movie, we see images based on Breugel's wild Bosch-esque hellscapes, and then we meet Dylan, voiced by Jon Hamm, lead animator on Robin for twenty years. They're the only ones there, because "everyone else has hallucinated themselves out."
< < < SPOILERS END

This is where I'm going to stop, although you still have at least thirty minutes--and several more ideas and reversals yet to come. The movie just does not let up, and keeps throwing ideas at you right up til the end. The last section revolves around her trying to reconnect with her son... if he hasn't been deleted yet. You get the delight of an animated Grace Jones. In fact, one of my favorite observations of the film, which goes without explicit comment, is that in the lobby, she passes figures like Marylin Monroe and Frank Sinatra, but also Shiva and Frieda Khalo and Picasso and suchlike, which I thought brilliantly expressed the way--even now--these people and their works are little more than cultural signifiers--they "mean" something without real engagement or knowledge of their work. Then, in the future, the signifiers have become even more general and dumbed-down... to the point that they include playing card figures. You'll also get more Breugel fun, and a smart and emotionally-moving ending.

Since I saw it, I have read the source novel, which is so different from this, I think they could have claimed the film as an original work, but I guess they're responsible guys. There is nothing at all about Hollywood or digitizing of actors in the novel. What it does have is a vision of an entire society living in a paradise that they are hallucinating, several leaps forward in time, along with attendant jumps in technology, and some terrible views of the real world beneath the illusion. It's an absurdist work akin to Alice In Wonderland, and even if you like the film, really, not a lot of reason to run out and read it.

As for the film: I fucking loved it. If you like serious, cerebral sci-fi, and also are interested in film and the various philosophical questions it raises, you'd better get your ass in that theater. I suspect that this is already available on demand, but... it's not impossible to watch at home, but being in a theater will help you pay the requisite attention. Your favorite herb [for me: Chervil!] may also enhance your appreciation. It was two hours of sheer delight, the rare movie of ideas, in which the ideas are very smart, not hard to follow [but you REALLY have to pay attention], it's very funny and also very emotional and moving. I'm kind of getting close to saying it's the perfect movie [for me, at least]. What an unexpected gift.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! Especially if you like a) cerebral sci-fi and b) movies.

Comments

Finally watched this last night (on Netflix) and it's everything you made it out to be and MORE. When I woke up this morning it was the first thing that popped into my mind. I was thinking about it in the shower. I'm here writing about it now when I should be working. You can take away so many ideas/meanings from this film. Pretty much throw a dart at the Wall of Cinematic Themes and you'll hit something that was touched upon. And smartly! In an engaging way. There was such an overall melancholy I don't think I'll be able to revisit it except maybe in parts. Looking forward to seeing more of this director's work.

I'm so glad you liked it! Yeah, I really thought it was so smart and touched on so many things. Yay!