A baffling accident of history

Watching Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes for New Scientist, 28 September 2022 

“Hundreds of birds are falling out of the sky every day,” complains Nadeem Shehzad, by far the grumpier of the two cousins whose life’s work is to rescue the injured raptors and waterbirds of Delhi. “What amazes me is that people go on as if everything’s normal.”

People, in Shaunak Sen‘s award-winning documentary, aren’t the only ones making the best of things under Delhi’s polluted skies. The city is also home to rats, pigs and frogs, mosquitoes and turtles, cows and horses and birds, and especially black kites, who have come to replace vultures as the city’s chief recycling service, cleaning up after the city’s many slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

The film follows Nadeem, his brother Mohammad Saud and their young cousin Salik Rehman as they struggle to turn their family obsession into [https://www.raptorrescue.org] a fully fledged wildlife hospital. No sooner is yet another funding bid completed then their meat mincer breaks down. No sooner is a wounded bird stitched up than there’s a power cut and all the lights go out. What happens to the family’s sewer connection when the monsoon arrives does not bear discussing.

These struggles are compelling and yet this is not really a film about humans. It’s about, quite literally, “all that breathes”. The humans are just one more animal trying to eke out a living in this alien place called Delhi: not a bad place, but not a human place neither: more a baffling accident of history.

The cousins compare notes on the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan while, barely two kilometres away, religious riots tear up the streets. Feral pigs cross a nearby stream. A millipede eases itself out of a puddle, even as a passing aeroplane casts its reflection in the water. The film’s first shot is a sumptuous pan across a rat-infested rubbish dump. Filmed at a rodent’s eye level, bare inches from the ground, a fascinating, complex, dramatic world is revealed. Later, we hear how Hindu nationalists are presenting the city’s muslim population in terms of disease and hygiene. Any European viewer with an ounce of historical sense will know where this thinking can lead.

Whether or not one picks up on all the film’s nested ironies is very much left to the viewer. Sen’s method is not to present an argument, but rather to get us to see things in a new way. Of the film’s main subject, the black kites, Sen has said, “I want audiences to leave the theater and immediately look up”.

Achieving this requires a certain amount of artifice. Viewers may wonder how it is that a tortoise reaches the top of a pile of garbage just in time to watch a motorike career around a distant corner. Individual shots took days to capture; some took much longer. The human conversations are a little more problematic. After consuming so many slipshod hand-held documentaries, I found the conversations here a little too on-message, a bit too polished to be true.

But why cavil at a powerful and insightful film, just because its style is unfamiliar? Filmed between 2020 and 2021 by German cinematographer Ben Bernhard, supported by Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi, All That Breathes inhales extreme close-ups and cramped interiors, exhales vertiginous skyscapes and city skylines.

The story of Delhi’s black kites, regularly injured by the glass-coated threads used to fly paper kites — one of Delhi’s favourite leisure activities — might have been better served by a more straightforward story. But then the kites would, in the same breath, have become a small, contained, even inconsequential problem.

The whole point of Sen’s film, which won a Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is that the kites are a bell-weather. We’re all in this emergency together, and struggling to fly, and struggling to breathe.

A balloon bursts

Watching The Directors: five short films by Marcus Coates, for New Scientist, 31 August 2022

In a flat on the fifth floor of Chaucer House, a post-war social housing block in London’s Pimlico, artist Marcus Coates is being variously nudged, bullied and shocked out of his sense of what is real.

Controlling the process is Lucy, a teenager in recovery from psychosis. Through Coates’s earpiece, she prompt Coates in how to behave, when to sit and when to stand, what to touch, and what to avoid, what to look at, what to think about, what to feel. Sometimes Coates asks for guidance, but more often than not Lucy’s reply is drowned out by a second voice, chilling, over-loud, warning the artist not to ask so many questions.

A cardboard cut-out figure appears at the foot of Coates’s bed — a clown girl with bleeding feet. It’s a life-size blow-up of a sketch Coates himself was instructed to draw a moment before. Through his earpiece a balloon bursts, shockingly loud, nearly knocking him to the ground.

Commissioned and produced by the arts development company Artangel, The Directors is a series of five short films, each directed by someone in recovery from psychosis. In each film, the director guides Coates as he recreates, as best he can, specific aspects and recollections of their experience. These are not rehearsed performances; Coates receives instructions in real-time through an ear-piece. (That this evokes, with some precision the auditory hallucinations of psychosis, is a coincidence lost on no one.)

So: some questions. In the course of each tricky, disorientating and sometimes very frightening film, does Marcus Coates at any point experience psychosis? And does it matter?

Attempts to imagine our way into the experiences of other beings, human or non-human, have for a long while fallen under the shadow of an essay written in 1974 by American philosopher Thomas Nagel. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” wasn’t about bats so much as about the continuity of consciousness. I can imagine what it would be like for me to be a bat. But, says Nagel, that’s not the same as knowing what’s it’s like for a bat to be a bat.

Nagel’s lesson in gloomy solipsism is all very well in philosophy. Applied to natural history, though — where even a vague notion of what a bat feels like might help a naturalist towards a moment of insight — it merely sticks the perfect in the way of the good.

Coates’s work consistently champions the vexed, imperfect, utterly necessary business of imagining our way into other heads, human and non-human. 2013’s Dawn Chorus revealed common ground between human and bird vocalisation. He slowed recordings of bird song down twenty-fold, had people learn these slowed-down songs, filmed them in performance, then sped these films up twenty times. The result is a charming but very startling glimpse of what humans might look and sound like brought up to “bird speed”.

Three years before in 2010 The Trip, a collaboration with St. John’s Hospice in London, Coates enacted the unfulfilled dream of an anthropologist, Alex H. Journeying to the Amazon, he followed very precise instructions so that the dying man could conduct, by a sort of remote control, his unrealised last field trip.

The Directors is a work in that spirit. Inspired by a 2017 residency at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in London, Coates effort to embody and express the breadth and complexity of psychotic experience is in part a learning experience. The project’s extensive advisory group includes Isabel Valli, a neuroscientist at King’s College London with a particular expertise in psychosis.

In the end, though, Coates is thrown back on his own resources, having to imagine his way into a condition which, in Lucy’s experience, robbed her of any certainty in the perceived world, leaving her emotions free to spiral into mistrust, fear and horror.

Lucy’s film is being screened in the tiny bedroom where her film was shot. The other films are screened in different nearby locations, including one in the Churchill Gardens Estate’s thirty-seater cinema. This film, arguably the most claustrophobic and frightening of the lot, finds Coates drenched in ice-water and toasted by electric bar heaters in an attempt to simulate the overwhelming tactile hallucinations that psychosis can trigger.

Asked by the producers at ArtAngel whether he had found the exercise in any way exploitative the director of this film, Marcus Gordon, replied: “Well, there’s no doubt I’ve exploited the artist.”

Driven by ghosts

Watching Explorer by Matthew Dyas for New Scientit, 3 August 2022

Explorer is a documentary about Ranulph Feinnes, the first man to circumnavigate the earth from Pole to Pole without recourse to flight.

It is a film full of ghosts. Its subject emerges slowly from snatches of previous documentaries, interviews, snatches of home movies, headlines. The film touts Feinnes’ unknowability: a risky strategy for audiences new to the man and his achievements, though the intrigue pays off handsomely in time.

Feinnes is not a man driven by mysterious and delicate internal forces. This is a man driven, simply and directly, by ghosts. Four months before his birth, Feinnes’s father was killed by a German landmine in Italy. His grandfather also died in the service of his country. It was young Ranulph’s intention to follow in their footsteps. Brought up in a household of indomitable women, he wanted to live up to the dad he never knew.

It was Feinnes’s first wife and former childhood sweetheart Ginny who devised the expedition that would make Feinnes a household name and make her the first woman to be awarded the Polar Medal. Seven years in the planning, Feinnes’s three-year Tranglobal expedition, from 1979 to 1982 was, with hindsight, the last of the great hero-projects of western expedition-making. The advent of satellite photography and instantaneous satellite communication has made much human adventure redundant, and undermined our old notions of physical heroism. In an era of extinctions and climate change, the notion of a human “pitting themselves against nature” has acquired a slightly “off” flavour.

Prevented by a stretch of open water from reaching the North Pole in 1984, Feinnes has long been one of our most eloquent witnesses to global warming. Nay-sayers will say there is something rotten at the heart of a white man’s exploration of what to him are far-off places. Feinnes’s expeditions since 1984 all point to something that should agitate us far more; that all over the world, the ice itself is rotting. The man lost fingers after hauling a sled out of polar water that shouldn’t have been water. Far from losing his already tenuous relevance, Feinnes is for many the ravaged poster child of our most contemporary crisis.

People who complain about Feinnes are rather like people who complain about us “mucking about in outer space”; they wildly over-estimate the costs involved, while wildly underestimating the value generated. Take the example of Transglobal: the expedition was put together from favours, donations and sponsorship. Careers were established in countless fields, from oceanography to biology to engineering, and 650 companies reaped the rewards of their association with the adventure.

Feinnes and his wife were unable to have children. When the couple applied to adopt a child, they were turned down because they didn’t have a stable enough income. Feinnes still struggles with money. Now a widower in his late seventies, remarried and father of one, he relies on plying the lecture circuit, driving sometimes ten hours a day to get from venue to venue, and sleeping in his car to avoid expensive bed-and-breakfasts.

Stomping through winter-time surf to ease the symptoms of suspected Parkinson’s disease, this old man is, by his own admission, still struggling to live up to his father. Pushing himself to the limit of his declining powers, he comes into focus at last as a tragic figure. But what is tragedy, if not a way of giving shape and meaning to a life that, by definition, is bound to end in decline and death?

Explorer’s achievement is to reach the source of Ranulph Feinnes’ heroism. The explorations, while staggering achievements, are mere way-stations. The goal is a life that has wrought as much good out of the world as it can.

“Does it all stop at the tree?”

Watching Brian and Charles, directed by Jim Archer, for New Scientist, 6 July 2022

Amateur inventor Brian Gittins has been having a bad time. He’s painfully shy, living alone, and has become a favourite target of the town bully Eddie Tomington (Jamie Michie).

He finds some consolation in his “inventions pantry” (“a cowshed, really”), from which emerges one ludicrously misconceived invention after another. His heart is in the right place; his tricycle-powered “flying cuckoo clock”, for instance, is meant as a service to the whole village. People would simply have to look up to tell the time.

Unfortunately, Brian’s invention is already on fire.

Picking through the leavings of fly-tippers one day, the ever-manic loner finds the head of a shop mannequin — and grows still. The next day he sets about building something just for himself: a robot to keep him company as he grows ever more graceless, ever more brittle, ever more alone.

Brian Gittins sprang to life on the stand-up and vlogging circuit trodden by his creator, comedian and actor David Earl. Earl’s best known for playing Kevin Twine in Ricky Gervais’s sit-com Derek, and for smaller roles in other Gervais projects including Extras and After Life. And never mind the eight-foot tall robot: Earl’s Brian Gittins dominates this gentle, fantastical film. His every grin to camera, whenever an invention fails or misbehaves or underwhelms, is a suppressed cry of pain. His every command to his miraculous robot (“Charles Petrescu” — the robot has named himself) drips with underconfidence and a conviction of future failure. Brian is a painfully, almost unwatchably weak man. But his fortunes are about to turn.

The robot Charles (mannequin head; washing machine torso; tweeds from a Kenneth Clark documentary) also saw first light on the comedy circuit. Around 2016 Rupert Majendie, a producer who likes to play around with voice-generating software, phoned up Earl’s internet radio show (best forgotten, according to Earl; “just awful”) and the pair started riffing in character: Brian, meet Charles.

Then there were three: Earl’s fellow stand-up Chris Hayward inhabited Charles’s cardboard body; Earl played Brian, Charles’s foil and straight-man; meanwhile Majendie sat at the back of the venue (pubs and msuic venues; also London’s Soho Theatre) with his laptop, providing Charles’s voice. This is Brian and Charles’s first full-length film outing, and it was a hit with the audience at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

In this low-budget mockumentary, directed by Jim Archer, a thunderstorm brings Brian’s robot to life. Brian wants to keep his creation all to himself. In the end, though, his irrepressible robot attracts the attention of Tomington family, his brutish and malign neighbours, who seem to have the entire valley under their thumb. Charles passes at lightning speed through all the stages of childhood (“Does it all stop at the tree?” he wonders, staring over Brian’s wall at the rainswept valleys of north Wales) and is now determined to make his own way to Honolulu — a place he’s glimpsed on a travel programme, but can never pronounce. It’s a decision that draws him Charles out from under Brian’s protection and, ineluctably, into servitude on the Tomingtons’ farm.

But the experience of bringing up Charles has changed Brian, too. He no longer feels alone. He has a stake in something now. He has, quite unwittingly, become a father. The confrontation and crisis that follow are as satisfying and tear-jerking as they are predictable.

Any robot adaptable enough to offer a human worthwhile companionship must, by definition, be considered a person, and be treated us such, or we would be no better than slave-owners. Brian is a graceless and bullying creator at first, but the more his robot proves a worthy companion, the more Brian’s behaviour matures in response. This is Margery Williams’s 1922 children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit in reverse: here, it’s not the toy that needs to become real; it’s Brian, the toy’s human owner.

And this, I think, is the exciting thing about personal robots: not that they could make our lives easier, or more convenient, but that their existence would challenge us to become better people.

What the fuck was THAT?

Watching Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick, for New Scientist, 8 June 2022

Near the climax of Joseph Kosinski’s delirious sequel to 1986 hit Top Gun, a fifth-generation fighter engages Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s F/A-18 in a dogfight around vertiginous snow-capped mountains. Suddenly this huge, hulking, superpowered wonderplane banks, stalls and turns, hanging over Mav (Tom Cruise, even more steely-eyed than usual) and his wingman Rooster (Miles Teller) as though it’s painted itself on the sky.

“What the ____ was THAT?” Rooster cries, though an actual graduate of TOPGUN (official name, the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program) would probably know a Herbst manoeuvre when they saw one.

The Herbst (also known as a J-turn) is the kind of acrobatic manoeuvre you can pull only if you’re flying one of a handful of very expensive fighters designed and built since 2010. The Russian Sukhoi Su-57 is one such; China has the Chengdu J-20.

We’re not told which aircraft — or indeed, what well-provisioned rogue state — Mav is up against here, but he is in trouble: his F/A-18 multirole combat jet is no slouch, but, being a child of the 1990s, it is neither super-stealthy nor supermanoeuvrable.

“Fifth-gens” are not the only nemesis Mav must confront. He’s also holding out against progress, personified by a rear admiral nicknamed the Drone Ranger who (in a splendidly sour cameo by Ed Harris) declares that drones are the future, and that carrier-based fighter pilots like Mav are dinosaurs.

Most of the time, however, Maverick steers clear of ideas, and devotes itself wholly to 1980s nostalgia, as Tom Cruise’s Pete Mitchell (now a test pilot) sets about making his peace with the orphaned son of his old wingman Nick “Goose” Bradshaw. This is a well-told tale of misunderstanding and redemption, interspersed throughout with one-liners and easter eggs for fans of the earlier film. In one touching and funny scene, Mav gets to thank Ice (now, God help us all, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet) for keeping him in fighter planes and out of promotion. Of Kelly McGillis’s Charlie, Mav’s love interest in the first movie, there is no mention — but not every storyline can look back, and in this film, Mav’s old flame Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) proves no pushover.

This is a peculiar project: part war film (as our heroes steal a plane from under the noses of the enemy), part techno-thriller (as Mav the test-pilot breaks all speed records and reaches an insane 3.5km a second), and part sports movie (as Mav welds his brilliant TOPGUN pupils into a world-peace-saving team; by that measure, mind you, you could argue that all Hollywood blockbusters are sports movies at heart).

Films can be good fun-fair rides quite as much as they can be good dramas, and it would be silly to criticise this thrilling display of real-world aeronautical stunt work for its lack of narrative realism. The presence of real planes and real pilots (and, after three months’ training, real airborne cast-members) makes this, in a profound sense, about as realistic a film as it is possible to get.

What we might look forward to eventually, though, is a film that looks for excitement, peril and heroism in a more contemporary theatre, featuring aerial combat that’s truly fifth-generation: super-stealthy, super-manoeuvreable, and drone-enhanced.

Until someone makes that imaginative leap (and, crucially, can take a huge global audience along for the ride), we can expect armed-forces movies to draw more and more on science fiction for their plots. Why is the pilot dog-fighting with Mav and Rooster dressed like an Imperial TIE-fighter pilot from Star Wars? Why is the illegal uranium enrichment plant that’s the target of Mav’s raid equipped with a two-metre wide exhaust vent lifted from Star Wars’s Death Star? Because this is what science fiction is, much of the time: a filler, a place-holder, a hoarding that reads, “Coming soon: the future”.

“Material of negative value”

Watching Lars Edman and William Johansson’s documentary Arica for New Scientist, 11 May 2022

Forty years ago the Swiss company Boliden sold nearly 200,000 tonnes of smelter sludge — rich in mercury, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals — to the Chilean reprocessing company Promel.

Promel dumped almost the entire consignment beside a row of residential houses in the port town of Arica (current population, over 200,000), and a generation of children grew up playing in the stuff.

The residential quarter, meanwhile — a government housing project for low-income families — grew and grew, until it surrounded the site of contamination.

In 1999 the Chilean government struck an uneasy peace with the victims of this wholly avoidable environmental catastrophe. Promel no longer exists (though its former manager is more than happy to issue not-so-veiled threats of violence to the filmmakers here). Families closest to the site have been evacuated; their properties are now dens for drug dealers.

What’s Boliden’s responsibility in all this? Chilean-born Swiss filmmaker Lars Edman returns to his birthplace and the site of his 2006 documentary The Toxic Playground to follow the legal case assembled by an international legal team against Boliden, a company whose due diligence regarding toxic materials turned out to be not nearly diligent enough. The chief protagonist of The Toxic Playground was Rolf Svedberg, former environmental director of Boliden’s Rönnskär smelting plant in Skelleftea, Sweden. It was his site visit and report that green-lit the sale and transport of what Boliden’s legal team call “material of negative value”. Brought face to face with the consequences of that report, and hosted by a community riddled with cancer, bone deformities and birth defects, Svedberg distress was visible.

Eleven years on, though, Svedberg has the legal case to think of, not to mention his current role: he’s a judge at Sweden’s Supreme Court for the Environment. Svedberg’s displays of fear and dismal self-justifications in Arica are all the more powerful for filmmaker Lars Edman’s obvious sympathy for his old acquaintance.

Boliden’s legal consultants bring in experts who assemble arcane explanations and a particularly ludicrous wind-tunnel experiment to show that living next to tailings containing 17 per cent arsenic could not possibly have affected anyone’s health.

Opposing Boliden are 800 plaintiffs (out of a population of 18000) armed with a single series of urine tests from 2011 and evidence that would be overwhelming were it not so maddeningly anecdotal. An interviewee, Elia, points out houses from her front gate:
“The lady who lived in the house with the bars sold the house and died of cancer. Next door is Dani Ticona. She had aggressive cancer in her head and died too. And her son’s wife had a baby who died. But he doesn’t want to talk to anyone about it. Marisa Pena has got stomach cancer. The lady who bought her house has facial cancer. And on the other side, that gentleman also has cancer. And over there…” On and on like this.

Boliden’s legal team performs a familiar trick, sowing doubt by suggesting that laboratory science and field science are the same thing, and standards of proof are the same for both. In the end, though, the case comes down to public accountability. If Boliden had to deal with ordinary consumers, it would have saved money and reputation long since by owning the problem.

Boliden, however, deals with corporations and governments, and its reputation rests on problem-free operations. It pays Boliden to stay silent.

Law is a rhetorical art, as its finest exponents, from Cicero to John Mortimer, ably demonstrate. We may like to think that justice can be scientifically determined, but in doing so we misunderstand the nature both of science and the law. Tragedy, poverty, blame and shame cannot be reduced to what one legal wag here calls “numbers, preferably with a lot of decimals”.

Protest, eloquence and argument are as essential for justice as they were in the making of this daunting, elegaic documentary.

Look! The Astrodome! Glen Campbell! Hippies!

Watching Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10-1/2 for New Scientist, 13 April 2022

“What we really seek in space is not knowledge, but wonder, beauty, romance, novelty – and above all, adventure.” So said science fiction writer Arthur Clarke, speaking at the American Aeronautical Society in 1967, and with the gloss already beginning to flake off the Apollo project.

By the time Apollo 11 launched on 16 July 1969, NASA’s bid to land astronauts the moon — the costliest non-military undertaking in history — could not help but be overshadowed by the even more enormous cost of the Vietnam War.

Only a very little of this realpolitik trickles into the consciousness of ten-year-old Stanley (newcomer Milo Coy) as he propels himself on his Schwinn bike around Houston — north America’s own Space City. His father is one of NASA’s smaller cogs — one of the 400,000 people who contributed to the programme — but this is enough to inspire a whole other reality in Stanley’s head: one in which he’s hired for a secret test flight of Apollo equipment before the grown-ups, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, blast off to glory.

Jack Black (whose mother, incidentally, was a NASA engineer; she worked on Apollo 13’s life-saving abort-guidance system) plays Stanley in the present: a narrator whose perspectives have widened to take in the politics of the time, but not in a way that undercuts the story. Apollo 10½ is, in the best sense, an innocent film: a film about wonder, and beauty, and adventure. Though full of Boomer catnip (Look! The Astrodome! Glen Campbell! Hippies!) — it is not so much a nostalgic movie as a movie about childhood, about its possibilities and its fantasies.

To that end the film, an animation, harnesses the “interpolated rotoscoping” technique first developed by art director Bob Sabiston for Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life. Sabiston’s “Rotoshop“ software essentially allowed an artist to draw over the top of QuickTime files, much as inventor Max Fleischer drew over movie stills to create the first Rotoscoped animations in the 1910s.

The software worked a treat for the surreal philosophical meanderings of Linklater’s 2006 Waking Life (a documentary of sorts about consciousness) but keeled over somewhat when a frantic studio expected it to actually speed up the production of A Scanner Darkly.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t.

An adaptation of Philip Dick’s paranoid classic (in which an undercover policeman is assigned to follow himself), this unfairly rushed film wobbles uncertainly between visionary triumph (type “scramble suit” into Youtube) and the sort of rather flat, literal animation that looks as if a computer could have done it unaided (though it couldn’t, and it didn’t).

Sixteen years on, Apollo 10½ realises Sabiston’s original 2½-D conception with perfect consistency. But that’s only partly down to improved technology. In fact traditional rotoscoping techniques were used in preference to the computer-aided “interpolated” rotoscoping of Scanner and Waking Life. The two-year industry hiatus triggered by COVID-19 gave Linklater and his animators the time they needed to hand-craft their film.

Time is rarely on the side of the filmmaker, but Linklater has chiselled out a unique relationship with the stuff. Boyhood (2014), about one boy’s childhood and adolescence, was filmed in episodes from 2002 to 2013 with the same cast. Merrily We Roll Along, based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical spanning 20 years, will take 20 years to complete. Apollo 10½, which the director had been noodling around for 18 years, has taken longer than the whole space race.

These are approaches to production that any traditional film studio would struggle to accommodate. So it’s no surprise to find an odd duck like Apollo 10½ streaming as a Netflix original. The streaming company’s 222 million subscribers are already sat at their screens, waiting to be entertained. Relieved of the need to recoup single investments in single cinema-going weekends, Netflix can afford to work in a more constructive fashion with its artists. That, anyway, was Linklater’s view when interviewed by IndieWire in March 2022, and he’s by no means the first auteur to sing the company’s praises.

Streaming will kill the feature film? On the evidence of Apollo 10½ alone — a charming, moving, and intelligent movie — I think we should bury that particular worry.

Strife, crime, depravity and recycled urine

Watching Rudolph Herzog’s Last Exit: Space for New Scientist, 16 March 2022

Documentary-maker Rudolph Herzog uses the likelihood (or otherwise) of humans colonising other worlds to structure this peculiar dash through the besetting space concerns of our day; for instance, how will we copulate in space? How much antimatter do we need for a journey to Proxima Centauri B? And how much extra skin do each of us need before it’s worth us bio-engineering human photosynthesis?

Closer to home — and here’s where Last Exit: Space begins — how will the first Martian colonists survive their cosmic ray-doused journey to the Red Planet? How will they stand a planetary surface ten times more radioactive than the surface of the Earth? And how will they survive each other’s company, hunkered down in sub-surface bunkers, “enjoying drinks of recycled urine”?

A traditional documentary might look for answers through the press offices of ESA or NASA. Not so Rudolph Herzog, whose father Werner, narrated and executive-produced this film. In signature Herzog style, Rudolph side-steps the pundits, and goes instead after people whose real lives are already shaped by the conundrums of space travel.

In the Negev desert, the Austrian Space Forum puts a not-too-sophisticated-looking Mars EVA suit through its paces. In Denmark, volunteers at Copenhagen Suborbitals build their first full-size rocket to propel one of their number past the Karman line and into the record books as the world’s first amateur astronaut.

Among the naysayers, space anthropologist Taylor Genovese compares the likely living conditions on Mars to working in an Amazon fulfilment centre, while Judith Lapierre, sole female crewmember of the Moscow Isolation Experiment in the late 1990s, explains how this study in close-proximity living ended with her alleging sexual harrassment against a Russian crewmember — which in turn seems to have led to her ostracism from the space community. If we can’t get along with each other on Earth, what chance do we have in space? Short of any number of technological miracles, a visit to another star will require a starship capable of supporting entire generations of human beings, such are the distances and journey times involved: Lapierre’s testimony suggests to the Herzogs that our spacefaring future will be one of “strife, crime and depravity”.

In that case, we might be better off staying put. This, surprisingly, is the advice of a cleric of the mystical Dawn Valley community in Planaltina, Brazil. The followers of former truck driver Tia Neiva believe they receive energies from visiting extraterrestrials from Capella. These same extraterrestrials advise against bodily journeys between the stars. As the cleric explains, since we evolved on this planet, we are hardly likely to thrive elsewhere.

Last Exit: Space pays a high price for its wide-eyed, catch-all approach to the subject; the lack of analysis on show here is frustrating. On the one hand we are regaled, yet again, with tales of “the human pioneering spirit” — as though humans were destined to explore and become somewhat less than human when not exploring. There’s really no anthropological evidence for this. Many is the culture that has stayed put and literally tended its own garden.

Set in false opposition to this straw man are an astonishing assortment of dystopian fantasies. Space corporations will control our water! Space corporations will control our air!

More likely, space corporations wielding mining robots will want as few people in space as possible. (While one isn’t obliged to mention robots in a movie of this sort, I’d contend that without them, it’s very hard indeed to say anything sensible about the economics of outer space.)

Astronaut Mike Foale and astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz provide the documentary with small but penetrating voices of calm. Space is an additional field of human endeavour, not an escape route lest the endeavour go wrong — say, by laying waste to the planet.

I’m as much of a space nut as anyone I know. But, to answer the question Werner Herzog poses at the beginning of his son’s charming, if somewhat unfocused documentary — “Do we need to seek our destiny among the stars?” — I do hope not.

Plastic astronauts

Watching Petrov’s Flu, directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, for New Scientist, 16 February 2022

Petrov (Semyon Serzin) is riding a trolleybus home across a snowbound Yekaterinburg when a fellow passenger mutters to a neighbour that the rich in this town deserve to be shot.

Seconds later the bus stops, Petrov is pulled off the bus and into the street, and a rifle is pressed into his hands. Street executions follow, shocking him out of his febrile doze—

And Petrov’s back on the trolley bus again.

Ambitious, mischievous, rich in allusions to Russian history, literature and cinema, Petrov’s Flu is also (lest we forget the obvious) a painfully precise, gut-wrenching depiction of what it’s like to run a high fever. Seeing the world through Petrov’s sick and disjointed point-of-view, we find the real world sliding away again and again, into often violent absurdity.

The worst is over. Petrov is on the mend. But it takes us the longest time before we can be confident that his friend, the drunken mischief-maker Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), is real, while Sergey (Ivan Dorn), the struggling writer pal who browbeats poor Petrov on every point (and is determined to achieve literary immortality through suicide), is a figment of Petrov’s own fever-wracked consciousness.

As Petrov’s fever breaks over the course of the film, fantasy and reality begin to separate, and what we might have feared was just a bag of bits (some tender, some shocking, all horribly entertaining) turns out to be a puzzle that, once complete, leaves us exhausted but eminently satisfied. Petrov turns out to be a comic-book writer, separated from his wife but still dedicated, as she is, to their son, who for his part is determined not to let his own fever stop him attending a kids’ New Year party.

Petrov’s Flu begins as a sci-fi movie. The whole city languishes under an epidemic that arrived accompanied by lights in the sky; Petrov’s wife (Chulpan Khamatova) is possessed by a demonic alien force during a library poetry reading; here and there, UFO-themed street graffiti come to life and wiggle across the screen.

As reality and hallucination part company, however, it becomes something different: a film about parents and children; about creative work, pretension and ambition; also, strongly, about Russia’s love of science fiction.

At its birth, western science fiction, and especially American science fiction, celebrated adventure and exploration. Russian sf has always been more about finding and building homes in a hostile environment. (The film’s location here is apposite: wintry Yeketerinburg, just east of the Urals, may as well be on the moon.) Russian sf is also strongly religious in spirit — and was indeed for many years one of Russia’s very few outlets for spiritual feeling, under a regime devoted (often brutally) to the suppression of religion.

The aliens in Russian sf invariably offer some form of redemption to a struggling humanity, and Petrov’s Flu, for all its iconoclasm and mischief, is no different. One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Petrov, mad with fear, in dashing with his son to a local hospital, when the pair are intercepted by a kindly UFO.

Such are Petrov’s fever dreams, coloured by his space-crazy childhood and his adult career drawing comic books. At one point he remembers his mum and dad decorating a Christmas tree with festive plastic astronauts; Petrov’s possessed wife, meanwhile, pursues her latest hapless victim among the climbing-frame rockets and spaceships of a delipidated playground.

Fans of Andrei Tarkovsky (director of sf classics Solaris and Stalker) will enjoy director Kirill Serebrennikov’s knowing nods to key moments in those films. But it would be a mistake, I think, to watch this film purely for the in-jokes. True, Petrov’s Flu is shocking and funny contribution to Russia’s centuries-old tradition of absurdist literature. But it’s also a film about people, not to mention an extraordinary evocation of febrile delirium, and its assault on the mind.

“The working conditions one has to put up with here!”

Watching Peter Fleischmann’s Hard to be a God (1989) for New Scientist, 19 January 2022

The scrabble for dominance in streaming video continues to heat up. As I write this, Paramount has decided to pull season 4 of Star Trek Discovery from Netflix and screen it instead on its own platform, forcing die-hard fans to shell out for yet another streaming subscription. Amazon has canceled one Game of Thrones spin-off to concentrate on another, House of the Dragon, writing off $30,000,000 in the process. And Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel, set millennia before the events of The Hobbit, is reputed to be costing $450,000,000 per series — that’s five times as much to produce as Game of Thrones.

All this febrile activity has one unsung benefit for viewers; while the wheels of production slowly turn, channel programmers are being tasked with finding historical material to feed our insatiable demand for epic sci-fi and fantasy. David Lynch’s curious and compelling 1984-vintage Dune is streaming on every major service. And on Amazon Prime, you can (and absolutely should) find Peter Fleischmann’s 1989 Hard to Be A God, a West German-Soviet-French-Swiss co-production based on the best known of the “Noon Universe” novels by Soviet sf writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

In the Noon future (named after the brothers’ sci fi novel Noon: 22nd Century) humankind has evolved beyond money, crime and warfare to achieve an anarchist techno-utopia. Self-appointed “Progressors” cross interstellar space with ease to guide the fate of other, less sophisticated humanoid civilisations.

It’s when earnest, dashing progessors land on these benighted and backward worlds that their troubles begin and the ethical dilemmas start to pile up.

In Hard to be a God Anton, an agent of Earth’s Institute of Experimental History, is sent to spy on the city of Arkanar which is even now falling under the sway of Reba, the kingdom’s reactionary first minister. Palace coups, mass executions and a peasant war drive Anton from his position of professional indifference, first to depression, drunkenness and despair, and finally to a fiery and controversial commitment to Arkanar’s weakling revolution.

So far, so schematic: but the novel has a fairly sizeable sting in its tale, and this is admirably brought to the fore in Fleischmann’s screenplay (co-written with Jean-Claude Carriere, best known for his work with Luis Bunuel).

Yes, progressors like Anton have evolved past their propensity for violence; but in consequence, they have lost the knack of ordinary human sympathy. “The working conditions one has to put up with here!” complains Anton’s handler, fighting with a collapsible chair while, on the surveillance screen behind him, Reba’s inquisition beats a street entertainer nearly to death.

Anton — in an appalled and impassioned performance by the dashing Polish actor Edward Zentara — comes at last to understand his advanced civilisation’s dilemma: “We were able to see everything that was happening in the world,” he tells an Ankaran companion, breaking his own cover as he does so. “We saw all the misery, but couldn’t feel sympathy any more. We had our meals while seeing pictures of starving people in front of us.”

Anton’s terrible experiences in strife-torn Ankara (where every street boasts a dangling corpse) do not go unremarked. Earth’s other progressors, watching Anton from orbit, do their best to overcome their limitations. But the message here is a serious one: virtue is something we have to strive for in our lives, not a state we can attain as some sort of birthright.

Comparable to Lynch’s Dune in its ambition, and far more articulate than that cruelly cut-about effort, Fleischmann’s upbeat but moving Hard to be a God reminds us that cinema in the 1980s set later sci-fi movie makers a very high bar indeed. We can only hope that this year’s TV epics and cinema sequels take as much serious effort over their stories as they are taking over their production design.