Passengers (2016)

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Dir: Morten Tyldum

Starr: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen

Viewed: Cineworld Renfrew St, Glasgow (Screen 10)

NOTE: This review goes into some detail about the film’s plot. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first, even if the main point of my review is to state just how much of a failure Passengers is.

“These are not robot questions.”

(Arthur draws attention to precisely what kind of questions Jim is asking)

 

“Do you trust me?”

(Jim asks Aurora before there first space jump, to which she should answer, no, no, and NO again)

 

For the few people out there that have always thought a modern day remake of the indentured servitude melodrama Rachel and the Stranger (1948) would work particularly well in space, then Jon Spaihts’ is about to disappoint you too. Passengers is a miserable mess of a film that manages to somehow sabotage a potentially interesting idea, not once, but twice. What is in effect a three-hander with plenty of scope for creepy psychological thrills and claustrophobic intensity, has all its dangerous edges smoothed away at the point of casting Chris Pratt as Jim Preston. Pratt’s amiable, affectless modern masculinity is predicated upon his near complete lack of sexual threat. He’s big, but he’s goofy; good looking and wise-cracking, but with a constant undercurrent of niceness. Inexplicably screenwriter Jon Spaihts gives the audience a fantastic location (the self-sufficient spaceship Avalon) and a disturbing central premise (what would you get up to if you knew you were the only conscious person among 5,000 unconscious interplanetary colonists?), but then chooses to focus upon an absurdly-realised romance and an utterly fudged action ending. For the record, Preston’s unravelling loneliness does not excuse his ‘act of killing’, and the obsessive way in which he controls and manipulates Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, is anything but ‘romantic’, unless your idea of ‘romance’ has a 15th century flavour about it. Lawrence is, by a long way, the best thing about this film, but I wonder just what kind of film she thought she was signing up for?

 

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Love is in the air? Or is that a psychopathic stare of intent? For large parts of the film Jim (Chris Pratt) is watching Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence. This voyeuristic tendency creeps into other areas of the film when the director frames Lawrence, so that her body is little more than an object to be gazed upon.

 

Spaihts’ script would have done well to heed the promotional tagline of the first entry in a franchise that he wrote the last instalment of, namely Alien (1978) and “In space no one can hear you scream”.  Prometheus’s (2012) woeful plotting was partly the fault of Spaihts (who co-wrote it with Damon Lindelof). Horror film critic Kim Newman has written about the overlaps, in terms of technology, between the universe of Passengers and Prometheus, hinting at a possible franchise linkage, which may go some of the way to explaining the incongruous nature of Andy Garcia’s brief appearance. But what do I mean by that tagline? In Alien there was a crew, progressively picked off one by one by the titular alien, until only Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was left to defeat the creature. This was a monster movie in space, that toyed with the emerging aesthetics of the slasher genre, and made much from the dark industrial nature of the spacecraft Nostromo. Passengers, by comparison, takes place on the brightly lit and hyper-consumerist Avalon, featuring a bar straight out of The Shining (1980), manned by an android, or is he a robot as even it seems confused about this issue of identity. This android/robot, named Arthur and played by Michael Sheen, is Jim’s only company, when he is woken from his 120-year hibernation by a freak asteroid strike. Jim was supposed to have emerged from his cryo-stasis, along with the other colonists, 4 months before landing on the far away colony of Homestead II. Instead, he finds himself awake 90 years ahead of schedule, with no means of getting himself back into cryo-stasis. The rapid deterioration of Jim’s mental wellbeing brings out a monstrous id, that should have formed the central component of a perversely disturbing psychological thriller in space, but Spaihts script chooses to evaporate this sense of dread and obsessive threat, by instead focusing on Preston’s recovery once he has woken/murdered Aurora’s potential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As Aurora discovers that tagline to Alien is all too true.

Frustratingly, the script puts enough meat on Lawrence’s role as Aurora to further emphasise just what could have been achieved if the writer, and most likely the studio behind this film, had opted to focus on the horror and thriller elements of the plot, rather than the romance and action elements. There is a revenge film in there somewhere, with Lawrence’s Aurora as the central protagonist and heroine. Aurora may start out like a MPDG, helping Jim rediscover his mojo and get rid of his Robinson Crusoe beard, but Lawrence is too smart an actress to be hemmed in by a reductive modern female archetype. Long before Arthur has spilled the beans about the precise reasons as to why Aurora finds herself stranded in space and time with Jim, we can see that the character is self-possessed in a way that never occurs in the purely reactive natures of MPDGs. It is a further failure of Spaihts’ script that once Aurora is fully apprised of what Jim has done to her and reacted with the kind of vengeful rage that is always interesting in film, it simply lets this wrathful fury dissipate into forgiveness, just in time for the plot to intervene and force the couple to co-operate with one another. It is all shockingly wasteful, as the queasy nature of their relationship, and the perversity of Jim’s initial fixation are buried under a welter of chauvinistic alpha male action posturing and cod Christian symbolism.

 

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After the revelation of why Aurora is actually with Jim, Lawrence really comes into her own, whilst Pratt is left floundering in a role that would have been better suited to someone like Michael Shannon.

 

A quick test of just how conservative and patriarchal the gender politics and ‘romantic’ notions of the film are can be carried out by examining more closely the two male relationships in the film. Firstly, you have Jim’s relationship with Arthur the android/robot (this confusion of identity augurs in other vagaries). Jim never goes beyond the formal with Arthur, refusing to enter in to a strong sense of camaraderie, or its modern equivalent ‘bro-ness’, partly because Arthur is unabashedly British and ‘proper’ in his speech, but also, perhaps, because Arthur isn’t in fact a man and his eunuch physicality underscores this emasculation. By comparison, when Laurence Fishburne’s Gus Mancuso (one of the managerial elite of the Avalon) is woken up from his cryo-stasis, we see Jim immediately enter in to an easy manly bond with him. Unlike Arthur, Gus also has eyes for Aurora, and Jim can relate to this. Gus’ companionship acts as a restorative of Jim’s machismo by enabling Jim to re-enter the casual chauvinisms of normalised masculinity. Mancuso also serves as just another means by which the script frustratingly converts the intensely voyeuristic and obsessive fixation that Jim has with Aurora into behaviour that is inherently masculine, rather than disturbing and ‘weird’. Even in normalising Jim’s behaviour as something central to a sense of male ego, there could have still been potential to demonstrate how this is perniciously predicated upon ideas of dominance, invasiveness and objectification. However, the little inserts of Aurora’s home video footage from a leaving party prior to her boarding the Avalon, show her female friends affirming a central romantic tenet of the film, that true happiness can only be found in a heterosexual relationship with a good, strong man. Does a man who holds you captive until you submit to his idea of romance count as a good, strong man I wonder? Once again, the echoes of Rachel and the Stranger sound out through galactic wagon train of the Avalon.       

Director Morten Tyldum (Headunters, The Imitation Game) was very clearly a hack for hire, going through the motions of Spaihts’ torturous script. That said there are elements of the film that are well handled. The production design on the film is immaculate, with the Avalon being a supra-plastic consumerist space patterned on shopping mall complexes like Westfield’s in Stratford, London. It is telling that the operations quarters of the Avalon are out-of-bounds to our passengers, with only the consumer-driven sections of the ship at their disposal. Like good modern citizens Jim and Aurora should simply occupy themselves with consumerist activity, and not waste time thinking about who, or what, is in charge of providing this life they lead. Columbia, the studio behind the film, are owned by Sony, which might explain a blatant bit of product placement in situ, when Jim has a little PlayStation inspired dance-off. One moment of brilliantly original effects work occurs when Aurora takes a swim in the starlit swimming pool, just as the gravity drive kicks out. This unique action sequence proves so effective because it again incorporates the dread aspects of those smoothly consumerist spacecraft veneers. Life is very much under the regulation of computer operating systems, squirreled away behind the panelling. By far the weakest element of the entire film is Thomas Newman’s ponderous and plodding soundtrack that could be Muzak, if it weren’t so tiresomely omnipresent. In a film built of fleeting moments of intrigue salvaged from a morass of poorly executed ideas, I still think that the one point where another, better film becomes visible is that moment when Aurora bursts into Jim’s bedroom and beats him senseless, before threatening to bludgeon him. The fact that this happens exactly halfway through the film, and serves as the last point at which the film shows any interest in the darker aspects of its central relationship, should give you a sense of just how far Tyldum and Spaihts let the whole thing drift.

 

Rating: 3.5/10

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Arrival (2016)

arrival-poster

Dir: Denis Villeneuve

Starr: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 2)

NOTE: This review contains unavoidable spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. As much as I was underwhelmed overall, it is still a film worthy of a visit to the cinema, particularly for the strength of Adams’ quiet certainty.

Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are bound by time and its order.

(Louise’s opening gambit, which effectively is the plot, in synopsis and hiding in plain sight)

 

You approach language like a mathematician

(Ian paying Louise a compliment, of sorts)

 

Arrival is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s optimistic sci-fi short story about how we make sense of language and how it makes sense of us. It is a film that feels as if it is dangling from a bridge between old and new ways of understanding narrative cinema, and by extension the worlds that narrative cinema helps to describe. It is a singularity that aims for a multiverse, but like the linguistic and scientific experts that are the film’s central characters, the film can only really approximate a slender understanding of a small part of the many. Without wishing to sound flippant I can only imagine what kind of inventive mess the Wachowskis may have come up with if it had been filtered through their far more promiscuous and polymorphous narrative conceptions. One question this film does resolve for this viewer is whether Villeneuve is a potentially great director, or whether Taylor Sheridan was the reason why Sicario (2015) was a far better work than Prisoners (2013). With this year’s delightful Hell or High Water (2016) Sheridan delivered a script that was just as rich and sinuous as his exceptional work with Villeneuve. Yet Arrival has all of the sombre tones and crippling moral masochism of Prisoners, with none of Sicario’s narrative momentum. As a result it feels a little bloated and pillowy; another ‘big ideas’ science fiction film that falls back on slightly silly sentimentality when it has exceeded the limits of those ideas.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant linguistics professor and translator, who at the start of the film has seemingly experienced the grief associated with the loss of a child. Nothing seems particularly out of place here, as we are given very little of Louise’s normal life before she is whisked off by Forest Whitaker’s uncompromising Colonel Weber to make sense of the arrival of a number of unidentified alien aircrafts at various sites around the globe. However, the keen-eyed viewer may have a little doubt as to whether somebody in Banks’s apparently vaunted academic position could have lost an adult child to a terminal disease at such a relatively young age (the ‘flashbacks’ that frontload the film seem to depict Louise’s adult daughter dying). Whilst in transit to the Montana craft site Louise is introduced to Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an equally brilliant physicist, who will form the scientific side of the investigation into what precisely the alien beings intend. It is relatively charming and quaint that a modern American film would place so much faith in the work of ‘experts’, especially in the year that gave the world Trumpism.

 

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Mirror, mirror on the wall.

 

Louise’s empathetic qualities accelerate the pursuit of mutual comprehension between us humans and what the US investigation team come to call Heptapods (due to the seeming presence of seven tentacle-like limbs). Whilst the military apparatus and hierarchy that surround her keep constant track of how the geopolitical picture is developing in Russia, Venezuela and most importantly China, Louise, with a little help from Ian, sets about making sense of what the Heptapods want. From the beginning Louise is absolutely certain that communication is the reason for contact, not military operations. Working within an unclear timeframe (weeks, days and months go by) Louise and Ian, with their respective teams, put together software that can begin to make sense of the inky, gaseous emissions that form the material structure of the aliens’ written language. Yet even with a commitment to understanding that has gone far beyond any of the work being conducted by other nations (of course), Louise and Ian cannot prevent slippages of meaning and misunderstandings from occurring. A crucial linguistic issue is whether or not the aliens are wishing to offer a weapon, demanding a weapon, or may simply be proffering a tool. These interactions between Louise and the aliens in Montana work as relatively engaging drama, asking the audience to digest a lot of interesting philosophical notions about how meaning is made, and what that meaning can mean. It is to the detriment of Arrival that the film’s bigger picture doesn’t sustain this commitment to difficult questions.

Where arrival comes undone is in the limitations of its geopolitics. In their television series Sense8 (2015) the Wachowski Brothers mapped out a truly ‘trans-‘ conception of the world. This was a show committed to engaging with as many different countries and cultures as possible, giving each story strand a specific location and worldview that was defined by that specificity. By offering up an alien presence in places as diverse as Sierra Leone, Sudan and Greenland, Arrival seems to enter similar terrain as the Wachowskis, yet the disappointment here is that it shows so little interest in these other possible windows onto the world. Instead we are presented with the heroic US singularity, a narrative curve that has been flogged to death a thousand times over. Granted, Amy Adams heroine is something beyond the usual white male sci-fi presences, but weren’t we here before with Jodie Foster in Contact (1997)?

The opening sections of the film with Louise’s bursts of memory, followed by the gradual realisation of the alien presence, and then humanity’s reaction, are unsettlingly effective because Villeneuve and his DOP, Bradford Young, never let their stately camerawork settle. Whether tracking, panning, or simply ever-so-slightly reframing, the camera is always in motion, as if the very fabric of reality is being stretched and remoulded by the presence of these unusual new visitors. Yet from the moment Whitaker’s Colonel arrives in Louise’s office this intriguing visual patterning is shunted to one side in favour of a more static and conventional approach to camera placement. Villeneuve and his screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who wrote the ingenious genre revision Lights Out early this year) similarly run out of the ‘big ideas’ and resort to dramatically reducing the scope of their film to a poorly conceived family melodrama, told almost entirely in flash forwards and without any significant context. Many viewers have compared the film to Spielberg’s early attempt at the genre, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). I can understand why this comparison is being so readily made, but to these eyes it seems like Villeneuve has turned the strengths of that film into failings. The beauty of Spielberg’s effort is that it begins as a drama about the disintegration of a family, when the father has a nervous breakdown. The family melodrama is therefore the crux of the film and the science fiction encounter is the magnifying glass through which the family tensions can be scrutinised. In Arrival Villeneuve gives his audience the sci-fi encounter and then gradually diminishes its awesome nature till we are lost once more in the distracting insularity of the individual’s dilemma. I would have preferred a few detours or delays rather than such an underwhelming arrival.

 

Rating: 6 / 10

Midnight Special (2016)

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Dir: Jeff Nicholls

Starr: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 13)

NOTE: This review contains unavoidable spoiler material. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. As much as I was left a little disappointed by Nicholls’ work here, it is still a film worthy of a visit to the cinema.

Jeff Nicholls’ latest film Midnight Special is an atmospherically rendered piece of cinematic hokum. It’s great strength and fatal weakness are one and the same thing. This is a film about belief that veils itself in mystery as a means of assuming the form of religious processes of faith. Nicholls’ thrusts the viewer straight into a disorienting quest for meaning which maintains a keen tension in the film long after Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton has revealed himself possessed of a bizarre array of ‘gifts’. However, this tension comes at the detriment of any meaningful engagement with significant parts of the film’s narrative. So much of Midnight Special remains vague, sketched out rather than thoroughly detailed. This viewer was left frequently wanting to know more about parts of the narrative that drift off into obscurity almost as soon as they have been introduced. Sam Shepard’s Calvin Meyer, a seemingly charismatic religious sect leader, of the type that Texas produces more than its fair share of, is a genuinely fascinating figure. Yet after his religious compound, entitled ‘The Ranch’, is busted by the FBI, Meyer is forgotten by this film. Likewise, Joel Edgerton’s Lucas, seems to have no real sense of back story aside from the fact of his being a former State Trooper. I found myself constantly wanting to know more about this character’s motivations, and the extent of his history with Shannon’s Roy. The character of Roy, Alton’s real father, is also hazily fleshed out. We get to know he was taken as a teenager to ‘The Ranch’. His relationship with Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah appears to have been a loving one. But what has suddenly woken Roy to the need for his son to be taken out of the clutches of Meyer and his quasi-religon? Nicholls’ seems to be suggesting it is merely an approaching date with destiny and the innate belief that his son will reveal something remarkable upon this date. Even Adam Driver’s nerdish NSA analyst feels less like a plausible human being than a convenient accelerator to a narrative that looks set to stall at any given moment. What do we genuinely learn about any of these characters, and why did Alton have to ascend to this other temporal dimension at the film’s close? No knowledge is forthcoming and few, if any, answers are given. As viewers we observe the faith that Roy, Lucas and Sarah have in Alton, and we bear witness to their belief that Alton is indicative of something beyond the human. The film’s narrative mechanisms are geared toward making us believe in something that we have no clear idea of. In this way it is very much a formal exercise in faith creation, which seems like a particularly American concern.

The propulsive quality of the film’s opening drive into darkness is Nicholl’s trump card. As Roy and Lucas set off with Alton in their muscle car – straight out of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) – the audience are drawn into the darkness. The wonderful aerial and tracking shots that establish the narrowly defined illumination of a torch or a car’s headlights within an otherwise black void, then give way to a moment in which Lucas dons his night vision googles and everything plunges into the indefinable. Throughout the film Nicholls’ balances darkness against light, the darkness being at first all-consuming and obscuring, penetrated only by pockets of light. Things happen in the darkness, but those things are all the more questionable as we cannot fully apprehend what they are. As the film progresses, Alton’s seeming photo-sensitivity gives way; the light is in fact a restorative energy for the child. The final sections of the film actually play out in dazzling, sun-kissed daylight, with the world upon our world that Alton has posited, coming to be revealed as a fleeting actuality, a reality overarching our own and operating in the interstices between what is an what is not.

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Jaeden Liberher was unnervingly otherworldly as the goggle-wearing Alton

 

There have been concerted efforts by critics to draw up a generation of new filmmakers that are primarily influenced by the wonder, terror and sentimentality of Spielberg. Much has been made of Nicholls’ admiration for Hollywood’s most successful movie brat, and it has been easy to draw parallels between Midnight Special and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). However, although both films appear predicated upon an unwavering faith in a higher existence beyond that of the terrestrial, Midnight Special possesses none of the wild mania of Spielberg’s film. Nicholl’s film is not one that is assailed by the creeping fear of doubt. What makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind such an incredible work is the fact that Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is allowed to appear almost entirely alone with his beliefs. Within his family and his immediate community, Roy’s pursuit of a belief in extra-terrestrial life is seen as nothing more than mania, brought on by some form of nervous breakdown. Roy’s belief actually does waver, because he is constantly pulled out of himself to view the emotional carnage that his mania exacts upon his friends and family. In effect Roy chooses to subordinate everything to his belief, his faith, but that is something that takes place against the almighty struggle with a world that does not believe Roy. In Midnight Special the fact that Nicholls’ chooses to make his film one that operates from within the wellspring of belief gives less room for doubt. There are no real dissenting voices to the central notion of belief in Alton as an exemplar of ‘otherness’. The director has positioned us with the faithful rather than with the sceptics. As a result there seems to be a surprising lack of conflict within a film that features a fair amount of gun violence and chase sequences. In fact, as the film progressed I found myself considering just how much of what was happening actually occurred because Alton had willed it thus. A test of this is the media coverage of Alton’s abduction that we know hasn’t been planted by his father, but we also observe Meyer denying involvement in calling the story in. Meyer actually says when questioned on this matter by one of his congregation that it wasn’t ‘The Ranch’ that took the story to the media, but rather “that’s something else”.

Nicholls’ is genuinely incapable of making a dull film, but Midnight Special’s singular form makes it, obversely, one of his most unengaging. When Lucas, Roy and Sarah finally bring Alton out into the light it becomes apparent just how ingeniously the darkness made it difficult to discern the degree to which our own faith has been misplaced. There is a cool, machine-calibrated relentlessness of purpose to the film’s darker half, that reminded me of Windig Refn’s exercise in style Drive  (2011). Yet this is really all just mechanism and when it comes to trying to ground belief in something more human the film runs aground upon the exhausted vacuousness of Kirsten Dunst’s under explored mother. Dunst is still in post-traumatic melancholia it would seem, her assumption being that by simply being, and being sad, we might connect with her at the film’s close. The fact that we are as detached from Sarah as we are from any of the other nebulous cipher figures that Nicholl’s has ended up giving us, is really a direct comment upon the problem of making your film’s form that of a faithbound belief. What had been so unnerving for so long, ultimately ends up exposing itself as a sham, nothing more than a trick of the light, and in actual fact a whole lot less.

Rating: 6/10

Ga, ga – Chwala bohaterom (1986)

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Dir:- Piotr Szulkin

Starr:- Daniel Olbrychski, Jerzy Stuhr, Katarzyna Figura, Leon Niemczyk, Maria Ciunelis, Krzysztof Majchrzak

Scr:- Piotr Szulkin

DOP:- Dariusz Kuc

Put quite simply, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom is a low-budget absurdist sci-fi masterpiece from the tail-end of the Communist era in Poland. Director Piotr Szulkin made a number of fairly inventive and daring movies during the 1980’s, including Golem (1979), Wojna swiatów – nastepne stulecje (1981) and O-bi, O-ba – Koniec cywilizacji (1984). Yet since the end of the Communist era in Poland his cinematic output has been limited to a 2003 adaptation of the Alfred Jarry play Ubu Roi. In many ways this is a great loss to Polish cinema, as the Gdansk-born Szulkin is one of the most distinctive Polish directors outside the holy trinity of Kieslowski, Polanski and Wajda.

Set in a bleakly grim futureworld in which prisoners are put to good use by being blasted out into space, supposedly to discover and claim new planetary terrain, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom plays out like some twisted blend of Dark Star (1974), Mad Max (1979) and Monty Python. The hero (or bohater) of the title is played by Daniel Olbrychski, one of the premier stars of the Polish screen (and an actor who in more open times would have almost certainly become a significant Hollywood presence). Olbrychski does sullen, Eastwood-like terseness almost as well as the great man himself and in Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom he wanders around the hellish ‘western’ civilization he has ‘stumbled’ upon, seemingly unwilling or reluctant to engage with anything, or anyone. What he does discover, fairly rapidly, is that the idealised notion of interplanetary discovery that both the government and the prison authorities are putting across is a lie. Rather than being sent to dangerous new planets the prisoners are sent to one particular planet where they are greeted as arriving heroes by the depraved human population of the colony. However this hero-worship has a hidden and sinister purpose that becomes increasingly apparent to Olbrychski, who appears to have simply swapped one type of prison for another, more dangerous, one.

Szulkin, who must have been working on a shoestring budget, manages to convert areas of Łodz (Poland’s heavily industrialised second city and cinema hub), particularly the Widzew stadium, into truly terrifying frontier terrain. At times the film has a close visual feel to the night-time sequences from the cult Australian movie Dogs in Space (1986), laced with a little of the working-class surrealism of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. One of the most impressive visual metaphors throughout the film is the way in which the old and stately rubs shoulders with the brash and modern. Christmas lights seem to illuminate every shop or bar sign, advertising various iconic American products, such as Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup. In the bar hotdogs are sold (inexplicably made from human fingers), whilst immense pride is taken by the bureaucrats of this hell-hole in the form of transport they drive around in. Inside the hotel Olbrychski as a visiting hero has to inhabit, there is a chaotic assortment of sculptures, busts and artworks, as if the place were a lapidary cemetery, or decaying museum, in which the forgotten history of a culture has been haphazardly stored away. So much of the landscape of the planet is familiar and obviously Earth-like, yet Szulkin is circumspect enough in his framing of each shot, that it unnervingly becomes an explicitly alien terrain in which humanity seems to have become hideously degraded and morally deformed.

Ga-ga bohaterom - One True Hero
If you could only find a way to commit a massacre with this toy piano then you’d be our one true hero.

Alongside Olbrychski another titan of the Polish screen Jerzy Stuhr – Amator (1979), Seksmisja (1983), Kiler (1997) – features as the camp and craven local bureaucrat, who seems at first to have only Olbrychski’s best interests at heart. There is a certain ‘theatrical’ style of acting that comes through in some Polish cinema and television and resembles a milder form of the deranged performances extorted by Andrzej Zulawski in his 1981 horror film Possession. At its worst this manner of performance can be seen as an irritatingly ineffectual and heavily signposted anti-realism, that seems to turn every role into a cabaret comic turn. However, when given the right narrative conditions, and when executed with the sophistication of a figure like Stuhr, this type of performance can significantly escalate the absurd comic energies of a given film. Here Stuhr puts on a whining, wheedling, brilliantly brown-nosing display that comes to encapsulate the passive-aggressive implacability of ‘officialdom’. This comes across most effectively in one brilliant sequence in which Stuhr arrives, unannounced, in Olbrychski hotel room to shower the ‘hero’ in gifts of a most disturbing nature.

The depravity of the frontier terrain that Szulkin has created in the movie has a hysterical and blackly comic tone to it. Gangs of whooping and screaming individuals ride around on converted motorbikes and sidecars, letting off firecrackers and lighting eerie flares. Sex is a prime source of corruption, with Olbrychski being inundated with different perverse offerings from the very moment his spaceship lands. Stuhr’s bureaucrat presents the first of these offerings to Olbrychski in the form of a youthful Katarzyna Figura, who plays an ‘innocent’-looking prostitute called Once. Later in a wonderfully demented sequence involving Maria Ciunelis’ malevolent harridan of a whore, Stuhr’s slimy authority is called into question as he is verbally chastised by Ciunelis with the kind of inventive cursing that is so rarely heard in everyday Polish. Aside from sex, there is an obsession with violence and brutality in this frontier world. The ‘heroes’ are meant to participate in this society by committing a suitably grisly and sickening crime, so that they can then be publicly executed in a truly horrendous and highly comical manner. Having left behind a brutally oppressive and dehumanising prison life on planet Earth, Olbrychski is more and more mortified to discover that far from having the lonely freedom of deep space welcoming him, he rather has an even more distorted and disturbing version of Earth to navigate through.

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Now who is a good little hero then. Play nice.

 

Szulkin’s film is an extremely funny one, but underpinning, and in many ways fuelling, this humour is a satirical bite that doesn’t need a specific understanding of late-Communist Polish realities to make its mark. The subversive way in which it ennobles Olbrychski’s prisoner figure by showing him to have far more humanity than either the prison authorities who deal with him upon earth, or the citizens of this ‘Depraved New World’, is further complemented by the manner in which government methods of policing and bureaucracy are frequently shown to be corrupt fabrications of idealised ‘authority’. In one particularly effective, if slightly heavy-handed, sequence Krzysztof Majchrzak’s military policeman first antagonizes Olbrychski, then provokes him into committing an absurdly violent act, before finally ensuring that the necessary evidence of wrongdoing is obtained by framing the scene. It is as coy and playful an interpretation of the average Polish citizen’s relationship to authority as you’ll find in Polish cinema, lent even greater poignancy by Olbrychski’s baby talk protestations (from which the title of the movie is derived) that seem to suggest that the only way to respond to those who wish to infantilise you is to become truly babyish.

Being a Polish director Szulkin cannot resist also involving elements of Catholic religious symbolism in his work and in Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom the implicit waiting for the Second Coming of Christ is found in the arrangement of objects in trinities, one on the left, one on the right and one in the centre. On a couple of occasions in the film this religious metaphor accrues an additional political meaning, as Olbrychski’s character refuses to select between left and right, but rather looks toward the middle option, the central way (neither adhering to the failures of either extreme, but seeking to balance one against the other). In this way Olbrychski’s character could be interpreted as a lone voice of reason, in a world of fanaticism and extremes. Szulkin tends to write these exchanges so that they resemble a particularly portentous take on Beckett, straining for elusive ambiguity. This is a rare false note in an otherwise energetic, sharp and wholly original addition to the dystopian sci-fi subgenre. Even the naming of the planet on which Olbrychski lands has a degree of ironic sophistication, it being a new-fangled formulation of Australia, that colonial dumping ground for all those dissident elements of ‘British’ society. This excellent film is well worth unearthing and has been handsomely boxed alongside two of Szulkin’s other 80’s films in a recent Telewizja KinoPolska release, replete with English subtitles