Words can hardly do justice to the plethora of outlandish visuals populating this ambitious sophomore feature from the Israeli director of "Waltz With Bashir," but they're merely one piece of a larger puzzle. Folman's beguiling project amounts to a stinging indictment of mainstream culture's unending commodification. The director spent half a decade assembling his loose adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's science-fiction novel, "The Futurological Congress," and the work shows in both its stunning appearance and the extraordinary depth of insight paired with it. Folman uses beauty and wonder as vessels for rage.
Echoing the meta device of "Being John Malkovich," Folman's movie revolves around an actor playing a fictionalized version of herself -- and in the process, delivering an incredibly heartfelt performance. Robin Wright appears in two modes: During the curious first hour, she struggles with her waning career, eventually agreeing to a digital experiment that will prolong her vitality indefinitely; during the nearly indescribable second half, which takes place 20 years in the future, the rotoscope style Folman first explored with "Waltz With Bashir" is subjected to a kaleidoscopic makeover. Bright colors and cartoonish figures borrowed from over a century of animation techniques populate each mesmerizing crowd scene to create a breathtaking sensory impact.
Goaded by conniving studio boss Jeff (Danny Huston) -- the mogul of a fictional studio slyly titled Miramount -- to embrace an emerging technology that allows a digital replica of herself to take over her career, Wright is eventually consumed by this alternate persona. The rest of the world falls in line, abandoned by the trappings of an all-consuming new dimension built exclusively for profit motive. Has there ever been a movie so aggressive toward Hollywood power structures? From Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel "What Makes Sammy Run?" to Robert Altman's "The Player," storytellers have constantly assaulted the studio system, but Folman makes its evils come alive with phantasmagorical effects that force viewers to see the argument from the inside out.
In another brief, memorable role, Paul Giamatti appears as a pessimistic doctor who predicts a cynical future in which movies depart from the screen and instead become internalized by the human body -- sort of like the animation zone, where reality collides with the forces that conspire to control it. In this grim future, capitalism has corrupted the foundations of human consciousness. "Movies are old news, remnants of the last millennium," says Miramount's monstrous overlord.
Folman answers that bleak assertion with this spectacular achievement, an ode to wonders of cinematic invention. Wright naturally maintains an intimate screen presence, appearing in tears during the first shot and never looking entirely at ease even before she transforms into a line drawing. Yet it's the sheer bravura of "The Congress" that carries it from scene to an empowering degree. In the process of dreading the death of cinema, Folman contributes to its continuing ability to see the world in new ways. Beneath the anger, "The Congress" offers hope.
Criticwire grade: A