Virtual reality and actual disappointment: this is what Ari Folman gives us in his new movie, which mixes live action and animation. It's freely adapted by him from an SF novella by Stanislaw Lem, the author whose Solaris became a famous film by Tarkovsky. Folman's work, conversely, is a worryingly glib fantasia about identity and experience in our digital future. It's a distinct comedown - both in terms of ideas and technique - from his electrifying animated 2008 movie Waltz With Bashir, in which he reimagined the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon, and brilliantly used the hallucinatory, rotoscope-style animation pioneered by film-makers such as Richard Linklater and Bob Sabiston. In The Congress, the animation and visual spectacle are much less interesting. The same goes for the performances.
The film looks at first like a smart, postmodern Hollywood satire, but with a toneless, contemplative sadness where you might expect the humour to go. Robin Wright (pictured) plays herself, as a failed movie star, living a fantastically improbable bohemian existence with her kids in a converted aircraft hangar on the edge of an airport, which is nonetheless somehow close enough to her agent's offices for her daughter to swing by in person. We start by seeing Robin's tearful but expressionless face in close-up as this agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), harangues her mercilessly for screwing up her career, by making endless bad choices.
Al says she has one last chance to grab some cash, and that is with a humiliating deal that involves licensing the studios to make a digital "genome" of her face and body, so their FX guys can use her younger babe-self for crass new computer-generated films while Robin herself agrees to quit show business. From here, we flash-forward 20 years to see the older Robin attending a futurological "Congress" sponsored by the studios' corporate owners, where she is permitted to emerge from this contractual void to be a cheerleader for a brave new world in which the people are kept pacified by a hallucinatory existence. At this point, our perspective shifts to this animated, imaginary world.
Folman's film alludes to Stanley Kubrick, Fritz Lang, John Frankenheimer and the Wachowskis' Matrix, with its famous choice of red and blue pills. In her initial discussions with the heartless studio chief - played, perhaps inevitably, by Danny Huston - Robin says she won't do science fiction because it's a "dumb genre". As a pre-emptive in-joke, that's a little too cute for my taste, and the studios' name, "Miramount" - fusing Miramax and Paramount - is galumphingly unsubtle. As for Wright's own performance, it is bland and stately. The idea of her fictionally failing as an actor strikes the spurious note of false modesty, especially as the film has no interest in sending her up, and Wright has recently made such a sensational splash on TV opposite Kevin Spacey in the Netflix series House of Cards. She has 1,000 times more zip in that.
And in those hallucinated sequences there is the baffling, minute-by-minute spectacle of the animation itself; it is just flat, compared to Waltz With Bashir, which had an immersive, thrillingly sensual quality. The animation work here doesn't look much more interesting than the average laptop screensaver. Repeatedly, it will feature thumbnail sketches of simulacrum celebs from history, such as Liz Taylor or Queen Elizabeth I, floating around this loopy universe, rendered uninterestingly and rather crudely. Tom Cruise makes a grinning appearance in his aviator specs: he could have grounds for legal complaint that his image should be used in this presumptuous and parasitic way.
Having said this, The Congress does achieve something, briefly, when Paul Giamatti comes on to the screen, playing Dr Barker, treating Robin's son, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for his gradual loss of hearing and sight. Strangely, unexpectedly, the film flares into life, and Barker and Robin have a real relationship, all the more poignant and involving for being so understated. Side by side, they sit in a sound booth, listening tensely as Aaron fails to repeat accurately the words that Barker is saying to him. It is very touching when they meet again, 20 years later; but this gets lost in all the shallow prog-rock imagery and lite-erotic detours, which is a shame. It could have been the film's real love story.