Posts Tagged ‘SF’


Director: Aleksei German

Screenplay: Aleksei German and Svetlana Karmalita

Country : Russia

Runtime: 177 mins

Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik (Don Rumata), Evgenyi Gerchakov (Budakh), Alexandr Chutko (Don Reba), Yuri Tsurilo (Don Pampa), Natalya Moteva (Ari)

A mad, unique cinematic masterpiece

Hard to be a God is a mad, epic masterpiece unlike any other film I have ever seen. Ostensibly a science fiction film it is a mud-spattered vision of the Middle Ages, channelling the rain-drenched monochrome of Winstanley, with the sensibility of Tarkovsky, as imagined by Terry Gilliam without any studio interference.

Based on a 1964 novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the story is set on an earthlike alien planet where the technology is on a par with ours about 800 years ago. A group of earth scientists have been sent to monitor the planet and help it progress, but without interfering in their politics. One of these, Anton, has taken on the guise of a nobleman, Don Rumata, who lives in a castle in the Kingdom of Arkanar. There, he has taken a young local woman, Ari, for a bride. The village around the castle is populated by a poverty-stricken parade of grotesques, clad in rags and stumbling around from one dirty puddle to another. The plot concerns a quest of sorts: Don Rumata sets out from his Castle to track down Budakh, a doctor who has been kidnapped by the tyrannical Prime Minister, Don Reba, and his militia, known as the “greys”.

However, the story really takes second place to the film’s extraordinary visual inventiveness. The costumes and sets are convincingly real and the wonderful cinematography seems to violate the rules to great effect. Many scenes contain tracking shots that last several minutes. Primary and secondary characters often break the “fourth wall”, gazing into the camera as they amble about, rather as working-class people used to do when early film-makers set up their cameras in the street (check out some of the old footage of Petticoat Lane on YouTube). People wander into shot from the side, only to shuffle off again. In almost every scene there is some sort of business going on (at one point, for no apparent reason, someone off-camera is waggling what looks like a chicken’s legs in front of the lens).

It is probably only fair that I should mention that not everyone in the cinema appeared to share my enthusiasm. There were a few walk-outs mid-way through the screening. In terms of length and pacing this is more akin to Stalker than to Shaun of the Dead, and the plot does get a bit hard to follow at times. It is a film that might not satisfy the less patient kind of viewer. However, once I realised that this was not going to be a fast-moving story I simply relaxed, sat back, and allowed myself to become immersed in this marvellous and unique cinematic experience.

Rating: 5/5

As I noted in my original review of Under the Skin, this is a movie that doesn’t provide the viewer with explanations. It provides you with the images and then demands that you piece together the story yourself. Since that first review I have read an interview with director Jonathan Glazer in Sight and Sound magazine, and earlier tonight I saw the film a second time. For the past few days I have constantly had scenes from the film running through my mind, to the point that I just had to go back for another viewing. This posting isn’t so much a second review, but a slightly haphazard collection of thoughts that have occurred to me since my first viewing and, particularly, since tonight’s viewing.

One thing to note is that the film opens with a completely black screen and ends with a completely white one, a nice twist on the screenwriting rule-of-thumb that the mood at the end should be the opposite of the mood at the start. On the black screen that we begin with, a small white dot appears, getting larger (or closer), and eventually it becomes apparent that we are seeing the creation of the alien’s eye*. In the final scene we see the burnt black corpse of the alien, and then the camera tilts upwards towards the falling snow, until the screen is entirely filled with white.

Going back to the opening images again, we hear – slightly fuzzily – words being repeated. These, of course, are the alien learning the language “she” will be speaking on earth. But the background to this is rather interesting. From Glazer’s Sight and Sound interview I learned that these rehearsals were not a planned part of the film. The recordings were actually of Scarlett Johansson working on her English accent. Needless to say, this Hollywood superstar is an alien herself when placed in the streets of Glasgow so it seemed quite natural to incorporate these word rehearsals as part of the movie itself.

Previously, I suggested that the alien is storing her human victims as a food source. I have since learned that Michael Faber’s original novel was making quite a strong statement about factory farming. I don’t know how much more detail the book goes into this business of farming, but it did occur to me that the alien is having to expend an awful lot of energy to obtain her human victims. When animals obtain food, there is always a tradeoff to be made by how far an animal must travel, how much food can be carried, and the energy obtained. When I watched the alien trying to drag a body along a beach, it did strike me that this was quite a cost-intensive way of obtaining food. Even the idea of driving around in a van, seeking men who are alone, and then taking them back to a house, seemed like quite a big effort. However, that was a level of reality that I could quite easily push to the back of my mind, as the film has much more interesting things to focus on.

Incidentally, that scene on the beach was really quite extraordinary. The alien is talking to a swimmer clad in a wetsuit, when he spots someone in trouble and goes to assist. A woman is swimming out into rough sea to rescue her dog, who is being carried away from the beach. In turn, the man who is with her has spotted that she is also going to need help, and he starts swimming out to her. I have no idea how this scene was filmed, but it really did look frighteningly dangerous. I was quite concerned for the actors involved! And all the time, the alien watches completely impassively.

In the second half of the film the alien becomes vulnerable. I wasn’t quite sure exactly what brought about this change. The alien stops her van whilst on a country road. Why? Did she run out of petrol? Was there a breakdown? I wondered also whether she might have been disoriented by the fog that had descended; she certainly appeared confused once she actually began walking out in the fog.

The last part of the film seems to be touching on the theme of women’s fears, and particularly the idea that the world can be an alien place for them. A kindly Scottish man offers his assistance and the two of them end up spending time together, and ultimately going to bed together. In this scene, the impassive alien, who has mostly seemed unconcerned with human emotions, actually seems to respond to the man’s attentions. However, in the final scenes of the film the alien is hunted in a forest by a would-be rapist lorry-driver. His attempted rape is pretty ghastly to watch. Even here, though, there is one moment that reminds us that our vulnerable young woman is in fact an alien being. Whilst she is lying on the ground and he is attempting to force himself upon her, we see her eyes turn to the sky. We realise that she is captivated by the falling snowflakes, a phenomenon that she has presumably never experienced before. When the lorry driver realises that this woman is not actually human, he pours petrol over her and sets her alight. The final shot of the alien in flames reminded me of that other classic that ends with a burning in a remote part of Scotland – The Wicker Man (I’m not suggesting this was a deliberate parallel, but who knows?).

In my view, this is a film that deserves recognition at awards ceremonies. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is outstanding. In the first half she alternates between a smiling flirtatiousness that few men could resist, and an impassively blank face that gives absolutely nothing away. Later, in the lovemaking scene her behaviour indicates something that we would recognise as tenderness if she were human. Finally, her fear and bewilderment when she is trying to escape her attacker are quite palpable.

Glazer himself needs to be considered at awards time for the amazing originality of his directorial vision. Daniel Landin’s cinematography is breathtaking at times, and Mica Levi’s musical score perfectly complements the visuals and the action. Both are also deserving of awards nominations.

* In my original review I referred to the alien as “Laura”, as this is what she is called on the iMDB cast entry. However, I don’t recall that we ever hear her name in the film, so maybe this is just how she appeared in the script.