ould you give a corporation the power to use your likeness however they saw fit? That’s the predicament faced by Robin Wright in Ari Folman’s The Congress, where the actress plays a fictionalised version of her real-life persona. Little did we realise that, in 2013, this bonkers slice of sci-fi would foresee what lay in store for the motion picture industry at the tail end of that decade.
Adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, the film depicts a veteran movie star wrestling with the imposed choice between an inevitable decline in job offers (an all-too-familiar repercussion of the natural ageing process) and the opportunity to sell her body — quite literally — to a major film studio, who want to digitally ‘recreate’ her appearance (face, mannerisms, the whole shebang) and use it indefinitely for their own benefit: the overriding caveat being that she never works again as her human self. It isn’t hard to grasp why she would contemplate such a risky proposal, since her teenage son needs her more than ever due to a rare medical condition that requires expensive treatment.
For better or worse, Wright’s eventual decision — to forgo her career for a life of computerised immortality — makes sense because, as Folman’s astute writing points out, so many actresses are considered “old news” by the fickle world of film when they reach their forties. What transpires next takes The Congress into the realm of psychedelia, as Wright becomes the central player in a cartoon acid trip that details the disagreeable aftereffects of her decision.
All this may have seemed like a distant possibility a few years ago, but it’s fast becoming a tangible truth as the dawn of a new digital trend looms balefully over Hollywood; the key difference in this real-world scenario being that the performers in question are unable to bestow their blessing. Last year, the makers of the upcoming war picture Finding Jack announced that James Dean had been cast in a pivotal role as a Vietnam soldier. No, not that James Deen (the well-endowed ‘adult film’ thespian who bedded Lindsay Lohan in 2013’s soapy erotic thriller The Canyons) — we’re talking about the James Dean, cultural icon and star of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), who passed away no less than 65 years ago and will soon be restored to factory settings via the wonders of computer-generated wizardry.
Is Hollywood slipping down a morally reprehensible rabbit hole? And will there be a way back once the damage is done? One could argue that this is the next natural step after the likes of The Crow (1994) and Gladiator (2000) took pains to resuscitate their cast members using visual artifice, but the tampering on those occasions was merely an unfortunate requirement, as the actors — Brandon Lee and Oliver Reed — had completed the bulk of their roles by the time of their respective deaths. Resurrecting an actor that’s been deceased for the best part of seven decades is, let’s face it, something else entirely.
If artists continue to be exploited in such a manner, the more acceptable and — God forbid! — normal this bizarre exercise will become, particularly if audiences are prepared to part with their hard-earned cash. Whether or not the public has an appetite for watching its favourite old-timers in new material remains to be seen, but by the end of this new decade, any number of famous faces may have had their legacies tarnished by dollar-eyed production companies. And with the wheels already firmly in motion, there’s not a great deal we can do about it . . . except, of course, refuse to give them our money.