The go-to adjective for science fiction. In big quotes on multiplex one sheets, on the covers of the latest quadrilogy in airport kiosks and conjoined with “director” in movie trailer voice overs.
Internet says – visionary: thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.
After an interstellar mockingjay ascended to Jupiter, what’s the most visionary science fiction film in recent memory?
A serpentine and poetically despondent wallow in muck and misery on a far away planet which humans are powerless to help.
Hard To Be A God is adapted by director Aleksei German from Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1964 Russian novel. German labored for decades to bring his version to the screen. He passed away in 2013, his wife and son finished the editing, and it’s a worthy requiem for the director.
A brief narration at the film’s beginning bare-bones the plot. Earth has emissaries on the planet Arkanar. Society there never had a flowering of art and intellect like our Renaissance. These observers are tasked with blending in but not altering in any way the planet’s progress. Not that progress is being made. It’s a medieval morass of religious fanaticism, mud, excrement, political maneuvering and lives worth nothing. For Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), an earthling posing as a warrior nobleman, he’s at the end of his tether with directives instructing him to maintain his distance. Not for nothing was an alternate title of the film History of the Ankanar Massacre.
So compositionally astute and with art direction like something out of Bosch and Dante, the film could be the nightmare progeny of Werner Herzog (who starred in a 1989 German language adaptation of the same book) and Andrei Tarkovsky. It makes Game of Thrones seem like a septuagenarian high tea.
No gleaming space ships. No folderol about bending space or warp drives. No grand speeches on the brotherhood of the cosmos. Ankanar is a world of hardship and ignorance. Rumato’s moral compass teeters in a shambling fever dream. He vacillates between devoted cruelty and distracted kindness to his “slaves”. Watchtowers and bulwarks decay and crumble. Animals bray, rain drips and corpses swing on a gibbet, heads slathered in gleaming fish entrails. It’s a visceral, wrenching work. Filmed in black and white (astounding to see on DVD, more so on Blu-Ray). The camera itself behaves like a participant/character in the movie, gliding then lingering in hypnotic, documentary style. Limbs of animals push into frame. Mist shrouds a body pincushioned with arrows. Perspective can be dense and disorienting. German’s final film is a wise and pained vision. Leavened with Russian mysticism and the cynicism that has doubled down since the fall of the wall, this is a singular, unforgettable work and, at almost three hours in length, definitely not for everyone.
What will happen when we venture away? What are we wise enough to imagine?
We’ll inflict and be inflicted upon.
We’ll be human.
We’ll get it wrong.
We’ll answer for it.
DVD Release Date: 6/30/15