Inquest of Pilot Pirx

PirxDirector: Marek Piestrak. Starring: Sergei Desnitsky, Alexander Kaidanovsky, Vladimir Ivashov, Zbigniew Lesien, Boleslaw Abart. Poland, USSR, 1978. IMDb: 6.6. My rating 3.5/4. Android and space travel science fiction thriller.

– Brown, do you believe in God?
– It’s not part of my duties.
(a dialogue between Pirx and a crew member)

– Your world is horribly empty for me, your ideals laughable and your democracy is just a reign of schemers chosen by fools.
(one of the main characters)

“Inquest of Pilot Pirx” is one of those good old sci-fi movies I miss sometimes so desperately. Unhurried, detailed, with a smart plot and good acting, the film takes its time to prepare you for everything and develops slowly, but somewhere in the middle you suddenly realize that it’s grasping you right by the throat. Based on a series of short stories by Stanislav Lem, “Pirx” a solid psychological sci-fi thriller about human-like androids and space travel, that with years gained somewhat of a cult following, especially in Poland and ex-USSR countries. It didn’t have a lot of realistic CGI for what was largely criticized, but surprisingly it aged well – what did not seem realistic turned out to be very cool from a graphical point of view.

The style and overall feel of “Pirx” is something like “Blade Runner” vs. “Alien”… but the movie was actually made few years before them. Among all the cool stuff about androids and increasing levels of suspense, “Pirx” featured first-person view 6 years before “The Terminator” and here it’s not just some pure entertaining element, but an organic part of the plot. Good old science fiction, dammit.

”Pirx” also caused a chain reaction in my mind about several important topics:
– Why there has been no progress in A. I. development since the 50-s and do we really need it – in its classic sci-fi understanding? (short answer would be ‘no’)
– Why pre-CGI or early CGI specials effects were often more awesome than the photorealistic CGI we have nowadays?

In retrospective, it’s surprising how popular and important the A. I. question was considered in the 50-s. It was a widespread belief among scientists and writers of that epoch that by 2000-s we would have smart robots with developed A. I. and self-awareness. Almost zero progress has been done so far though. The point is that the A. I. creation is still approached in a purely mathematical and mechanical way since there are no ideas of how to do it otherwise. From philosophical point of view, there is no essential difference between a simple calculator or a self-driving car, but there is an abyss between any of them and a human brain with very little understanding on how the latter actually works.

Still, I think the current direction of mankind’s technological progress actually makes sense. What would be really useful is a complex machine able to perform in autonomy a variety of tasks within different conditions. We are gradually moving to it, don’t we? It shouldn’t be self-aware, which can be considered psychologically an important achievement since this is when a human becomes God. The practical meaning of being self-aware in this case is very low or even dangerous as for the first time humans could have a real competitor (this is what most sci-fi in fact is discussing). What would be a self-aware machine needed for? Do they need emotional intellect to fulfill their role? The answer is obvious.

As for the special effects… There is a curious topic often recurring in recent discussions and forums about CGI, special effects and why few sci-fi movies age well. While it’s obvious that we have reached the point when anything can be created with the help of computer, the real question though is different – is it just the photorealistic quality of special effects that makes our jaw drop? Is this the final aim? I doubt so. Old-style special effects often didn’t look real because of lack of technology – the designers had to find tricky and original way to create something that would look similar. And this is what makes them often exceptional pieces of art, because they were designed to imitate something, substitute it, make you believe in it, rather than be simply photorealistic. In simple words, we like effects when they are a) the means to express something bigger and are connected to the plot b) are cool visually. Photorealism is not on this list.

Accusing old sci-fi movies of simple special effects would be like accusing 2D cartoons that all characters are flat. It’s the ingenuity, improbability and graphics of them that makes us wonder, because they force us to use fantasy and imagination.

Well, both themes surely deserve more attention. Coming back to the movie…

The plot. Our near future. A corporation was able to create human-like robots that are more capable than humans in everything with the exception that they do not possess empathy or emotions, still being able to imitate them though. Pirx, a incorruptible pilot known for his honesty and professionalism, is invited to assess the performance of a mixed team composed of both humans and androids during a flight near Saturn. His verdict will be decisive when evaluating whether to start a massive android production.

The film was based on a series of short stories by Stanislav Lem “More Tales of Pirx The Pilot” (other films based on his works you have probably heard of are “Solaris” and “The Congress”). Predicting inevitable comparisons with some other 70-s and 80-s science fiction, lets admit – “Pirx” was not as innovative as Ridley’s films or as visually stunning as “Stalker” (Kaidanovsky did the main role in the latter right after “Pirx”), but remember for a second that it was shot in 1978 in two communist countries where the technical limitations for filming science fiction and the cultural censorship were still extremely relevant. “Pirx” overcomes it by slowly building up the suspense and developing the plot that actually makes sense. The android and human replacement is approached here from different points of view, dropping hints about some classical Azimov’s stories.

The acting, surprisingly, is one of the strong points of the film. Commander Pirx, played by Sergei Desnitsky (he wasn’t among the most popular Soviet actors), is by no means a hero, rather an everyday normal citizen, trying to stay fair and find the solution in different situations, kind of a space Sherlock Holmes. The rest of the crew are portrayed brilliantly, because you can’t tell who is a human and who is an android. All of them behave mechanically and without any visible emotions, it surely helps to build the suspense.

“Inquest of Pilot Pirx” was produced by Poland/USSR, but on other hand it would be also honest to see it as a Polish/Estonian collaboration since the movie was shot in large parts in Tallinn. The score was recorder by Arvo Pärt, an important Estonian compositor who has been the most performed living composer in the world for 5 consecutive years. When an interviewer asked Polish director Marek Piestrak how he managed to involve the Estonian composer in a sci-fi movie for mass audience, he said that at that time Pärt simply wasn’t that famous. It’s ironic though that later an updated version of the movie was released where the original soundtrack was substituted with 90-s big beat and drum’n’bass music. It was largely criticized but… it’s not that bad and refreshes the movie.

Worth watching? Yes. It’s a good old sci-fi just like we all adore it. Maintaining the intrigue till the end, the androids here are as creepy as humans. Thoughtful, smart, with enough action and thriller, some very good acting and strong script based on Stanislav Lem’s short stories, ”Inquest of Pilot Pirx” takes its time in the first part to build up the pace and story – but once it does, it could really derange you. Highly recommended. It was a real surprise for me.


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