Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Fantaspoa ’19: His Master’s Voice

There is something about the work of Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem that inspires more ambiguous and open-to-interpretation adaptations than the original source novels. Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a classic case, but Ari Folman’s The Congress was no slouch. Neither is this. Gyorgy Palfi offers a Twenty-First Century re-imagined, sequelistic vision of Lem’s classic Cold War-era novella with His Master’s Voice, which screens today at this year's Fantaspoa in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Like many Lem novels, Voice is a first contact story—sort of, but perhaps less so this time around. Regardless, Peter Horvath’s father left dark, dreary Socialist Hungary in 1981 to study a gamma ray phenomenon in America that he became convinced was a signal from space—and he just stayed. Unlike his mother and disadvantaged brother Zsolt, Horvath never really blamed him that much, but he always had a sinking feeling his father really shouldered some of the guilt for three notorious explosions that rocked Colorado (remember, it was gamma rays that created the Incredible Hulk).

With the fall of Communism and the rise of online connectivity, Horvath sets out to find his father, following the clues from a History Channel-style conspiracy show and the remains of the old research facility adjacent to Los Alamos. Many of his fears will be partly confirmed when he finally meets his father, now known as Hogarth, but everything is much more complicated than he ever suspected—cosmically so.

Palfi pitches his material at a very high level and he engages in a fair amount of mischievous flights of fancy, so expect to get a little lost once or twice. That’s just going to happen. Fortunately, it is worth unpacking all his scientific and philosophically speculation and following his narrative jumps. This is ambitious story-telling and sophisticated sf speculation, but it has genuine cinema substance at its core.

The characters are also sharply-drawn and surprisingly engaging, especially considering how out-there the film sometimes gets. Csaba Polgar portrays Horvath as quite a dogged everyman, but Eric Peterson really creates an impressively nuanced, multi-dimensional (so to speak) portrait of old Hogarth (formerly Horvath). Adam Fekete (who also co-starred in Kills on Wheels) is convincingly whip-smart and angry as heck as Zsolt. However, Diana Magdolna Kiss does not have much significant business to perform as Horvath’s lover Dora, who seems to magically visit whenever his is in need of a quick booty call.

There are some metaphysically significant plot points that are just left hanging at the end of Voice, but that is in keeping with the Lem spirit. Palfi’s outrageous visual stylings similarly fit Lem’s themes like a glove—the early sequences in which old, yet-to-be-revealed Hogarth/Hovarth’s face appears to be cut out of the film with scissors is one of the easier examples to explain. This is a smart, strange film, but that is to its credit. Highly recommended, His Master’s Voice screens today (5/29), as part of Fantaspoa in Porto Alegre.