Aniara (2018)

ANIIWell, this was rather bleak- trust a cautionary Swedish sci-fi to suggest that Despair Conquers All rather than Hollywood’s usual Love Conquers All nonsense. It was also quite brilliant, a sci-fi film which is High Concept to its very core. Aniara isn’t perfect by any means, but its absolutely one of the most engrossing sci fi films I’ve seen for quite some time. When the end credits rolled, I was quite dumbstruck, aware that I’d watched something really quite extraordinary. Again, it isn’t perfect- a few performances don’t quite ring true, there are one or two gaps in logic, a few fairly minor plot-holes likely down to being faithful to its 1950s source (and how space travel was envisaged back then), but its easy to forgive all that when the film as a whole succeeds so well.  

Based on a 1956 epic poem from the Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, its a really ambitious film that imagines the possible end of humanity at the macro level (humanity abandoning a destroyed Earth to seek possible survival on Mars) and the micro (the steady disintegration of a closed society of colonists trapped on a doomed space vessel). The Aniara is an implausibly gigantic colony ship that ferries survivors from Earth to a life on Mars, but this usually routine three-week voyage is interrupted by a catastrophic impact of space debris, damaging the ships engines and sending it wildly off course. The ships captain desperately attempts to maintain calm when he reveals to his passengers that the incident threatens to extend the voyage by as much as two years while a route back to Mars can be found. 

The beauty of Aniara is how mundane this future is. The colony ship is like a modern cruise ship, a hotel in space full of restaurants and arcades and clubs and theatres designed to entertain colonists for a three-week trip and presumably distract them from the cold reality of space travel and the hard life awaiting them on Mars. But following the incident that damages the Aniara, it is now an enclosed society within a fantasy façade, as if the colonists are suddenly trapped in a failing Disneyland during an Apocalypse. Its the Earth they thought they had all escaped in microcosm, dying all over again.

Aniara throws in ruminations of our place in the cosmos, the passengers increasingly fragile human psyches struggling to cope, collapsing in the face of Eternity and the vastness of the void that has trapped them. It purports an AI which elects for self-destruction rather than continue suffering the pain of increasingly damaged minds it is designed to heal. This subtext, of a suicidal AI unable to face its fate, is mirrored in the reactions of many of the colonists. As time wears them down and the Aniara’s enclosed, trapped society threatens to collapse, the whole fragments, people turning to religion and cults, the sheer physical escape of orgy’s or drugs or drink, while the more desperate souls taking the brutal path of anxiety, depression and suicide. 

Its, er, not an optimistic film. I could easily summarise the film -and I’m sure many have- as Wall-E crossed with the original Solaris movie: indeed it really feels like its from some other era, back when sci-fi films were more cautionary, like Soylent Green or Silent Running, and yet it feels so very timely, reflecting our society and how we live, how we cope through seeking escape from our realities.

Its also one of those films that is made Great by its ending, which I can’t really explain here because I always try to keep my reviews spoiler free when I can, but you know, the ending is perfect. Comparing it to the end of Citizen Kane is possibly misleading, but if you know how that film ends, how its revelation makes the film truly great and leaves it lingering in your head for days afterward, then you might have an idea what I mean. There is no real twist or shock in Aniara‘s ending, but its the perfect denouncement, perfectly sensical and satisfying even if it isn’t exactly reassuring. But yeah, its PERFECT and its haunting me- you just cannot leave this film behind. 

Salyut 7 (2017)

salyutcThe image above tells you all you really need to know about the Russian film Salyut 7: visually it’s quite astonishing, throwing images such as that above, depicting the rescue mission launched into space breaking out of the clouds, up onto the screen with as much gloss and sophistication as most of the visual effects of Gravity, the previous high-water mark for space visual effects.  Its really quite astonishing how the quality of visual effects is getting so ubiquitous- I remember when there was a huge difference between the effects work of, say ILM or EEG, and everyone else, back in the day. Computer imaging and the presumed use of the same software packages has been quite a leveller, and no longer do films necessarily have to boast huge budgets to get premium visuals.

Salyut 7 was something of a surprise discovery for me, just stumbling upon it on Amazon Prime. Curiously, it even appears there in two formats- as a two-hour movie, and also as a two-part drama of two one-hour episodes. Imagine showing BR2049 as a two- or three-part miniseries. I don’t know why, must be some vagary of the films financing and distribution- I see it has recently turned up on blu-ray in some territories (Germany even getting it in 4K).  I think it would be a pity if here in the UK the film is relegated to an almost VOD release rather than the more prestigious limited-theatrical or disc-based release that would get it wider attention, and which it deserves. That said, kudos to Amazon for picking it up. This thing feels like it came from nowhere and I lapped it up.

salyutaBased on true events that occured back in 1985, in which a daring mission was launched to rescue the Salyut 7 space station that had suddenly suffered a fatal malfunction, this film is, literally, like a Russian version of Apollo 13 complete with Gravity-level visuals. If that doesn’t wet your appetite then this is not for you. Its a riveting and powerful film of human triumph over adversity. Those Gravity-like visuals really intensify the you-are-there feeling, greatly enabling the tension of the events and hinting at the possibilities for other spaceflight dramas in the future. I have always maintained that a definitive film about the Apollo missions would be spectacular and cannot fathom why such a work has never been made up to now, other than the superlative HBO series From The Earth to the Moon (a series oddly overlooked these days which really deserves a HD release). 

Salyut 7 is also, alas, perhaps too slavish in its attempt to mirror the success of Apollo 13 as a dramatic work, suffering from the same faults that Ron Howard’s film did in its targeting of drama and emotional involvement, and following too closely the narrative structure and tropes of the earlier film. I noticed that the surnames of the two cosmonauts launched on the rescue mission are different to the real men, as if to excuse the dramatic license used to ramp up the tensions and their soap-opera backgrounds (arguments and conflicts that likely never really happened, a ‘sin’ that Apollo 13 committed also). That said, I guess you have to forgive dramatic license- these are films, dramatisations, rather than documentaries, afterall.  At its best, this film actually recalls the successes of The Right Stuff.

The cast is pretty good, the film is naturally in Russian with English subtitles, I’m certain some nuances of performance escaped me, but the language certainly enables the sense of time and place, that, say, a European movie with an English cast could never capture. The music fits awkwardly, however, part ambient noise (another nod to Gravity) and part overly-bombastic orchestrations that feel rather OTT- indeed the score is one of the films few stumbles. The Russian source music (rock songs etc) used in a similar way to the songs in, say, The Martian, really feels amusingly amateur too, maybe it’s all a bit too Eurovision for my tastes. I suppose that raises thoughts about the localisation of films, the dubbing/subtitling/use of music licenses. Most people will likely have no issue with it.

salyutdOn the whole though, this is a great space movie. And two days ago I’d never even heard of it. I thought this was the Information Age. What a strange, strange world- the Russians should hire another publicity company, maybe. In any case, anybody who enjoyed either Apollo 13 or Gravity will likely really enjoy this film, and I’m sure many will be surprised at just how technically adept the film is too. If only the script could have been quite as authentic as those visuals are, with less of the hyperbolic dramatics that cinema so often demands.  I’d certainly like to see a disc release here in the UK, I’d be tempted to pick it up as I’m sure it would only improve on a blu-ray presentation.

At the very least it’s a pleasant experience not being assaulted with explosions and aliens in a modern space movie- I’d love to see more like this, and it’s nice to see Russian cinema demonstrating its ability to measure up to Hollywood and give us a different flavour. I wonder if the time has come for Russian cinema to return to Solaris?

 

Years on, Solaris still confounds

sol1Solaris (1972) Blu-ray

I understand Solaris‘ cinematic cousin, 2001: A Space Odyssey, quite well: a Monolith, a construct of an alien civilization, or an alien entity or AI itself, teases mankind forwards on the evolutionary path, teaching man-apes the use of tools in order to kill. Jump forward to another technological test of when the man-apes are evolved enough to discover a buried monolith on the moon. This monolith in turn raises a further test by transmitting a signal which tests whether the man-apes are advanced enough to travel to Jupiter. Jump-cut (and here I’ve cut out a whole sub-plot regards a homicidal Hal computer) to Jovian orbit where another monolith invites an evolved man-ape to journey across the infinite to a physical transformation into a Star Child. It’s all quite elegantly simple really, humanity has been taking taking some kind of alien test since the Dawn of Man.

Solaris, however is another matter. Even though I have read the Stanislaw Lem novel it is based on, the film Solaris itself is a different entity to its source and remains a fairly cryptic work, albeit a fascinating one. The film is so frustratingly slow and so willfully poetic -all pluses for advocates of the film of course- that it makes Kubrick’s 2001 seem like a conventional fast-paced thriller. Attention spans be damned, this film’s long, long shots  will test most peoples patience- boring or mesmerizing, that is the question.

Maybe it is both.

Indeed, while people who dislike 2001 for being slow-paced can at least confess to enjoying its spectacle and technical polish, that can’t be said of Solaris. Solaris doesn’t do spectacle, or futuristic trappings of traditional sci-fi imagery. It is very low-fi, almost low-rent; the effects are minor and largely ineffectual compared to Kubrick’s wizardry. 2001 displayed a physical, technological odyssey from cave to orbit to lunar landscapes to  Star Gate. Solaris displays a very internal odyssey, as director Andrei Tarkovsky was clearly not interested in making a sci-fi film, and is rather scathingly bored with traditional sci-fi trappings of technology or prediction. We know, physically, where we are at all stages of 2001, the mechanics of space travel minutely displayed – in Solaris, we never even know where the alien world is or even how we get there.The odd thing is, none of that is really important.

sol3The central plot, such as it is, concerns a scientific outpost studying an alien planet that appears to be sentient. For decades the mysterious alien world has befuddled the scientists sent there, so much so that only a handful remain and, as they are now behaving quite strangely, and the project’s purpose is being questioned, a psychologist is being sent there to appraise the scientists and the progress of the mission.

The irony of Solaris is that its protagonist, psychologist Kris Kelvin, is possibly the very worst person to send to the alien world and judge the outpost studying it. He’s clearly damaged goods having something of a midlife crisis. Living with his father, he wanders his childhood haunts as if keen to re-capture the innocence and happiness of those days having suffered painful tragedy in his adulthood (the suicide of his wife) .

Kelvin is hurtled off to the alien world of Solaris- somehow alive, intelligent, and yes, utterly alien to human understanding. What, after all, does Time itself mean, or human mortality, to an entity millions, perhaps billions, of years old? The few remaining scientists at the station orbiting Solaris, at their wits end after decades of failing to understand or communicate with the alien intelligence, have begun experiencing strange visitations on the station. Kelvin arrives at the station and soon encounters a visitation of his own- in his case, his long-dead wife. Cue long sequences of soul-searching and anguished guilt as the film considers what is human, what is fabrication, what these visitations mean, whether humanity can ever really understand what Solaris is. Indeed, not so much whether humanity can ‘know’ the alien, but really if the alien can ever ‘know’ the human. Is Solaris even aware of the humans studying it?

What I find most rewarding about Solaris, and 2001, is that it is science fiction on the grandest scale, the greatest of ideas. No robots or ray-guns or evil monsters here- this is no space fantasy, this is science fiction, in the greatest tradition of the literary genre.

The problem with Solaris is its glacial pace which even back in 1972 was slow, but now, compared to the pace of modern films, it seems a film from another planet. I consider myself a fan of the film but it’s certainly testing at times. On the whole the film rewards on each successive viewing but its pace makes rewatching it a rather daunting experience, which is why I’ve seen it far fewer times than 2001. Purists will yell foul, but a good thirty minutes, maybe even an hour, could be cut from the film and it would make just as much sense. Maybe it wouldn’t be as beautiful, or poetic… but I contend the film isn’t perfect, and is clearly inferior to 2001. I don’t mind it confounding, indeed, I rather like it being obtuse and subject to the viewers interpretation, but the presentation is clearly beyond sedate.Its more… indulgent. Yeah, maybe that’s the word. Ultimately, maybe Tarkovsky wasn’t the right guy to make a science fiction movie, maybe the film was simply beyond the technology of the day.

When I watch 2001, at the end I feel inspired, enthralled, the film always opening my eyes to a bigger world, a bigger worldview, a cosmic worldview. When I watch Solaris, I always feel rather… well, down at the end. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s because Kelvin at the end has simply retreated back to his childhood, literally so, as it is reconstructed on Solaris. He hasn’t evolved, or improved himself. He’s gone backwards somehow. He hasn’t embraced the cosmic, he’s retreated to his own private world, and his childhood. It feels negative somehow, rather than positive. But maybe that’s just me. I’m sure, like 2001, Solaris really means something different to everyone.

But it’s still a damned interesting movie.

sol2

 

Solaris (2002)

Caught an airing of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris in HD on the TCM channel. Far as I know, the film has never had a HD release on Blu-ray anywhere in the world, so I was curious to see how it looks in HD. One word- beautiful.

solaris-planetOh go on then, another word- exquisite.  If its indeed true that there has never been a HD disc release of this film then that needs fixing pronto. Maybe Arrow Films might give it a go? I believe Solaris is a 20th century Fox release, and Arrow have licensed a few Fox titles in the past (Big Trouble in Little China springs to mind for one). If anyone one from Arrow ever reads this- make it happen, please.

Regards the film itself, it still holds up very well. Indeed, while it may be inferior to the 1972 Russian original (albeit more accessible), it remains a film that gets better with age. Its a slow, meditative film, an oddity back when it was released and only more so now as films get faster and louder with every summer season. I’ve always maintained that Alien entities are Unknowable- Star Treks friendly biped aliens with bumpy foreheads and perfect English are all well and good, but proper science fiction dealing with Alien contact should always be more 2001/Solaris than Star Trek. The biggest mistake Prometheus made was trying to explain the mysterious Space Jockey and the derelict craft from the original Alien. Contacting and understanding an Alien should be more like getting to chat with God- these are entities so utterly Alien they are, frankly, beyond our comprehension.

Which is the beauty of Solaris. Its generally accepted that the planet Solaris is alive, an Alien entity that can only communicate with humans through their memories and unconscious desires/fears… by taking corporeal form in the shape of loved ones, whether dead or left behind on Earth, the Alien Solaris attempts to understand our form of life, our physicality, mortality, our sense of space and time. Its possibly more it trying to fathom us out than us figuring it out, a fascinating realisation that to Aliens, we are as Alien to them as they are to us.

sol5

 

I believe producer James Cameron (once slated to direct this film, thank goodness that didn’t work out) commented that the film was originally much longer, that it was drastically tightened up. I’d love to see that longer version. It occurs to me that Solaris would benefit from the tv mini-series approach of the recent Fargo series. I’m certain most fans of the Coen brother’s cult movie were horrified at the prospect of it being transferred to a television series but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the year, possibly even superior to the original movie, The story of Solaris spread across a ten-episode miniseries, with more characters on the space station and hence more visitations and encounters, and more time to ponder man’s place in an increasingly strange universe, would be fascinating. Of course, there’s as much chance of that ever happening as there is a longer cut of Soderbergh’s film being released- a huge fat zero.