‘Tomorrow we will be passing through some extremely dusty regions.’
A veteran astronaut is recruited for a mission to place a satellite in the orbit of Saturn. However, the real objective of the exercise is for him to evaluate the performance of a new prototype of a humanoid robot, who will form part of his crew. But its’ identity is withheld from him…
Thoughtful Eastern Bloc science-fiction based on a story by ‘Solaris’ author Stanislaw Lem. This was a co-production from Poland and Estonia, which at the time was still part of the Soviet Union. Interestingly enough, the filmmakers seem to have had an eye on the international market, the film making a deliberate effort to be seen as set in the West. McDonalds makes an appearance, and the space project apparently comes under the auspices of UNESCO. Apparently, this is down to the fact that they are responsible for dealing with the ‘cultural and social impact’ of the robots, or ‘non-linears’ as they are called here. It’s also clear that this is the near future as, aside from the mission and the robot, there’s a complete absence of any other science fiction trappings.
Seasoned spacer Pirx (Sergei Desnitsky) is a sceptic with a public reputation for complete honesty. Conscious of the inevitable conflict between man and machine, he’s the perfect choice to run the mission because he wants the robot to fail. lf he can’t criticise its performance, or evn identify it, then the way will be clear for their introduction into many walks of everyday life. Unfortunately, some of the business interests behind the ‘non-linears’ aren’t too keen on his involvement and attempt to have him killed before he can get off the launch pad. Once bound for Saturn, he’s then faced with the puzzle of picking the odd one out from his crew, made doubly difficult when they start casing suspicion on each other.
This film turns out to be rather a mixed bag. On the plus side, it’s a solid premise which brings up some interesting questions. Can artificial life replace humankind, particularly in dangerous tasks and environments? It’s quite prescient when you consider current innovations in self-driving cars and speculation on artificial intelligence. This all gives the film a surprisingly contemporary edge, even if these questions are presented are on a fairly basic and unsophisticated level.
But there are problems. The ‘conspiracy theory’ side of things never really develops and seems a little illogical anyway. Sure, it’s obvious why the manufacturers of the ‘non-linear’ wouldn’t be keen on Desnitsky as a judge of their product, but is it really a sound motive to kill him? Although they do try to make it look like an accident, it’s out of step with the rest of the film and, after the rocket takes off, it becomes irrelevant anyway.
Worse still are some of the events on the mission itself. Yes, we can give a pass to the scientific inaccuracy of the climactic scenes in the rings of Saturn (not present in Lem’s story apparently), but it’s harder to forgive the unclear motivations given to Desnitsky’s fellow crew members. But the film’s worst sin lies in its’ treatment of the ‘non-linear.’ It turns out to be mad. Yes, it gets a god complex and starts ranting at a bemused Desnitsky via a trippy recording. ‘Your democracy is just a reign of schemers chosen by fools’ it proclaims, possibly exposing some intended political subtext on behalf of the filmmakers. ‘I will show you that there is no foolishness crazy enough, or an idea so ludicrous, that it cannot be accepted by humans, as long as it is nicely packaged.’ Which is all true enough, but the non-linear’s adoption of the standard ‘psychotic bad guy’ role is too neat a way to sidestep all the questions that the story has raised. Basically, it’s a bit of a cop out.
The SFX are fairly minimal and not all that impressive, although the ship’s interiors are functional and the whole business of space exploration is presented on pleasingly practical terms. Director Marek Piestrak keeps things grounded and performances are competent, if a little anonymous. This can obviously be forgiven in the case of the mission crew as the audience is supposed to be left guessing as to who is human and who is not.
Science fiction from behind the Iron Curtain was primarily a cinema of ideas rather than spectacle and this means that many examples have stood the test of time a fair bit better than their Western contemporaries. This is not a bad example of the genre, but there is a sense of an opportunity missed; that a tighter script and a stronger viewpoint could have achieved a lot more.