‘Do you know what it is to eat nothing but fungi and weeds?’
An upholsterer is accidentally launched into space in an experimental rocket. An alien race helps him to return to Earth, sending one of their own along as an ambassador to make official first contact. But five hundred years have passed, and the workman finds his home world changed beyond recognition…
The somewhat familiar ‘fish out of water’ trope is the basis for this science-fiction comedy from Czech co-writer and director Oldrich Lipský. The intention seems to have been largely satirical, but subtlety is sacrificed to a more obvious, broader approach.
It’s a historic evening at the Strakonice Rocket Factory. Their prototype of a huge cargo spacecraft is on the pad, and crowds of press and public have gathered to witness the launch. However, the Mission Commander (Bohumil Svarc) is not a happy man. All the attention has spoiled him rotten, and his latest complaint sends upholsterer Joseph (Milos Kopecký) into the capsule to provide last-minute padding for his seating arrangements. Unfortunately, the craftsman accidentally initiates the launch sequence and blasts himself off into space.
Five hundred years have passed before Kopecký returns to Earth, this time in the company of an alien companion he has named Adam (Radovan Lukavský). This extraterrestrial is a representative of a race who live on the Blue Star, who have decided to help the Earthman return home and offer the hand of friendship to his species. However, five hundred years have changed people and human society beyond recognition, making it difficult for the 20th Century man to fit in. The alien attempts to help by turning himself invisible and, together, they promote Kopecký as a scientific genius of his time.
The basic premise of a man travelling into the future can be traced as far back as some of humanity’s earliest myths and stories. 3rd Century Greek historian Diogenes Laertius recorded the tale of Epimenides of Knossos in his book ‘Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers’, and there are many equivalent tales in other cultures, such as ‘The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus’. The most obvious and well-known example is Washington Irving’s 1819 short story ‘Rip Van Winkle’. It took the rationalism and invention of the Victorian era for British author H G Wells to tie it to the scientific principle with his ground-breaking short novel ‘The Time Machine’ (1895). Wells even tipped his hat to the origin of the concept later on with ‘When the Sleeper Wakes’ (1899).
Unfortunately, accidental astronauts and time-travellers almost always have to be idiots in the film world. Apparently, it’s what makes them funny. So, as per usual, Kopecký is a complete buffoon, thrashing around in the tinfoil future, misunderstanding everything and taking pratfalls for comedy effect. His stubborn ignorance and exploitation of his alien friend also make him unlikeable, which is quite a significant problem. His character and attitude were likely intentional and part of the satire. However, it’s not easy for an audience to connect with the main protagonist of a comedy when he’s an obnoxious moron. It can work, of course, but then the humour needs to be a lot darker than it is here.
It’s a pity because some moments of the satire work well, most notably when Kopecký is taken to a store for a new set of threads that leave him looking like a cheap game show host. In some curious foreshadowing of our 21st century, he can order anything he wants from a console. Not just clothes, but a new Skoda, a custom-made place to live, even a live giraffe! Even though money has been abolished, he goes into an absolute shopping frenzy and orders multiple quantities of everything. He even goes through a dictionary, page by page, to ensure he doesn’t forget anything! This jab at consumer culture is clearly quite prescient. It may have been inspired by the Communist bloc isolationist propaganda of the time, which promoted people in the West as frivolous and obsessed with acquiring personal possessions.
Aside from that, the thin plot revolves around Kopecký passing himself off as a genius, helped by the invisible Lukavský. Engineer Petr (Vít Olmer) and scientific bigwig the Academician (Otomar Krejca) are particularly keen for details of the fuel used to power Kopecký’s rocket. Using Lukavský to calculate the formula, the upholsterer attempts to use its possession as leverage, but this just confuses his hosts. What can Kopecký possibly want when everything is freely available anyway? Even he doesn’t know, falling back on blather about enhancing his ‘prestige’. These differing points of view and the mutual inability of the principals to comprehend them hint at where the film might have gone with more sophisticated handling. Instead, director Lipský prefers to cover Kopecký with soap suds from an automatic shower machine and have him fall into an indoor pond. There is an attempt at a message late on when Engineer Olmer’s romance with brunette psychiatrist Eve (Anita Kajlichova) touches a chord with the alien, but it feels a lot like an afterthought.
The most pleasing aspect to modern eyes is the wonderfully future-retro art design by Jan Zázvorka and the costumes by Ester Krumbachová. It’s precisely the mid-20th Century concept of a silver, tinfoil future that now looks so quaint and adorable. There are huge push-button computers, a robot tour guide with waving arms, personal transport via flying bubble cars and air traffic controllers wearing one-piece jumpsuits and safety helmets. Best of all, Lukavský’s alien is tall, thin and comes with the kind of large, bulbous head much favoured by vintage TV shows like ‘The Outer Limits’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’. There’s also some more foreshadowing of modern times when Kopecký takes part in a scientific conference that looks a lot like a large Zoom meeting!
The film was moviemaker Lipský’s first venture into the fantastical arena, although he had plenty of experience with comedy. He’d worked exclusively in that field after making his directorial debut with ‘The Hen and the Sexton/Slepice a kostelník’ (1951). At the start of the following decade, he went back to the science-fiction well with time travelling farce ‘I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen/Zabil jsem Einsteina, panove’ (1970). However, he’s best remembered for ‘The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians/Tajemství hradu v Karpatech’ (1981). An adaptation of a Jules Verne novel, the film featured outstanding sets and prop designs, again courtesy of Jan Zázvorka. Leading man Kopecký was an even more regular collaborator, appearing in almost a dozen of the director’s 24 features.
There’s a seed of an excellent film here, but the decision to go for broad comedy makes for a somewhat wearing experience.