Berlinale Reviews: A stellar pick of global sci-fi (Part II)

Lifelong sci-fi nut Kirill Galetski is pleasantly surprised by what Berlinale has to offer to his kind. Part I looked at a domestic hamper of sci-fi goodies; here’s the best from the rest of the planet.

Back to the Futuristic USSR

The most exciting offering from Poland is a digitally-restored version of Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe) by the recently deceased Andrzej Żuławski, known for his 1981 effort Possession, a nightmarish divorce drama actually filmed in Berlin. He began shooting On the Silver Globe in the late ’70s but before he could finish, the Polish authorities cried subversion and shut down the whole operation. He completed his work by driving around Krakow, explaining the unfilmed parts of the story.

Something’s gotta be done about your kids!

Based on a series of books written by his great-uncle, the film depicts crew of crash-landed space explorers who start a new civilisation on a foreign planet. In this new corner of the galaxy, time goes faster than at home, and the Earthling ambassador sent to find out what happened to the original astronauts discovers that their descendants have descended into tribalistic savagery and mysticism. They worship the newcomer as a god, but when he falls from grace, they crucify him.

It’s challenging at best, unwatchable at worst

The digital restoration does justice to the one-of-a-kind, eye-popping visuals that were ahead of their time, lensed in beautifully fluid, kinetic cinematography. However, be warned – when it all comes together, On the Silver Globe is challenging at best, unwatchable at worst. But the mere fact that it is even available for viewing is nothing short of a miracle, and it is worth seeing to just imagine what it could have been.

More noise from the eastern front

Jindřich Polák‘s 1963 Czech space exploration film Ikarie XB 1 is a little-known precursor to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with some elements of Alien (also featured in the retrospective). Stanley Kubrick watched the film while preparing for 2001, and his film bears some similarities in terms of its production design. Polák and partner Pavel Juráček loosely adapted the novel The Magellanic Cloud (1955) by Polish sci-fi master Stanisław Lem. Electronic music aficionados could appreciate the film’s daring avant-garde score by Zdeněk Liška.

One of the greatest sci-fi films to come out of Russia is also one of the most overlooked. This might be partly because it is still not officially available on subtitled video outside of Russia. Konstantin Lopushansky‘s nuclear holocaust drama Letters from a Dead Man could be termed Russia’s retort to America’s The Day After, or the UK’s Threads. The narrative is superficially displaced from a Russian setting into an unnamed Western country. All of the names are Western, soldiers sport M16s instead of AK47s; but the tone and typecasting is unmistakeably, quintessentially Russian.

What makes the film sublime is its warm humanistic undercurrent.

Still from Letters from a Dead Man featured on indieberlin

Rolan Bykov is a lead actor of merit but not renown, perhaps recognisable to Andrei Tarkovsky fans. Here, he gives a solemn portrayal of Dr. Larsen, a Nobel-winning computer scientist whom we see at the beginning of the film as a survivor of nuclear war. He and his dying wife are taking shelter in a museum basement, waiting for higher approval to move to a proper bunker. To keep his head, he writes letters to his missing son, and these form the spine of the film. It’s bleak, but what makes it sublime is its warm humanistic undercurrent.

Unmissable anime

The most sought-after entry from Japan is likely to be Mamoru Oshii‘s 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, currently the subject of a controversial live-action Hollywood remake. Based on a manga series by Masamune Shirow, it is widely recognised as one of the best animes of all time.

Ghost in the Shell still featured on indieberlin

The film is set in 2029 in a metropolis called New Port City. Major Motoko Kusanagi, a female cyborg, is sent by an arm of the government to track down the Puppet Master, a villain who hacks into people’s minds and controls their bodies. They capture him – but order to trace his original body, Kusanagi must hack into it herself and merge with her nemesis.

The film envisions a highly electronically interconnected world, and even manages to pull off something of a cybernetic love story.  All of this makes for intelligent and philosophical storytelling in a visually splendid  and deliciously violent anime package. And anyone who has seen The Matrix will identify Ghost in the Shell as one of its influences.

Golden oldies

The retrospective also includes a stunning array of more or less widely seen staples of the genre for good measure. Besides the aforementioned Ridley Scott classic Blade Runner, the festival will also show the director’s cut of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Luc Besson’s humorous ode to Heavy Metal magazine, Le cinquième élément (The Fifth Element); George Lucas’ Earth-based totalitarian dystopia THX-1138. Finally, modern greats such as the Kathryn Bigelow thriller Strange Days complete the lineup alongside the unmissable oldies Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and War of the Worlds (1953).

Still from Blade Runner featured on indieberlin

Part I lands in Germany, probing the little-explored reaches of the great R.W. Fassbinder’s early career.

Many of the retrospective screenings are already sold out, but the Berlinale screening venues typically hold a few tickets in reserve at their box offices for last-minute sales.

Check the Programme section of www.berlinale.de for full scheduling and location information.

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