His Master’s Voice (Az Úr hangja) first published by Sight & Sound
“It is in the quest for such knowledge that science is bringing us closer to an understanding of who and where we are,” says the host of a Sixties television programme about space exploration. “You were born into chaos. Those first days were a blur. But then, by the power of your mind you resolved that chaos into a universe. A small universe at first, but a supreme act of learning.”
Coming some way into His Master’s Voice (Az Úr hangja), these words also capture the experience of watching it. For this latest from Hungarian director György Pálfi (Hukkle, 2002; Taxidermia, 2006; Free Fall, 2014) subjects viewers to a multimedia chaos of information, leaving us to build from its flotsam and jetsam of images a cinematic microcosm of meaning. It opens with a human space craft of the future about to make first contact with an alien planet, before the ‘camera’ pulls rapidly out and back through star fields and organic-seeming clusters to the rear of a present-day commercial airplane in which Péter (Csaba Polgár) is asleep beside his girlfriend Dóra (Diána Kiss). Elegantly realised in fluid computer-generated imagery, that strange backwards zoom, collapsing space and time, the cosmic and the cellular, introduces us to a quest narrative where the beginnings and ends of everything, on both a macro- and microscopic scale, seem intimately interconnected.
It is unclear whether the interstellar prologue was Péter’s dream or a premonition, but he too is on a quest for origins and contact, having flown from Hungary to America in search of the father who abandoned him and his younger, disabled brother Zsolt (Ádám Fekete) in 1980. An image of the father from 1982 has appeared in a TV documentary, associating him with a shadowy government research programme and a series of mysterious incidents in Colorado. So Péter sets off after his lost father, following a murky trail of state secrets that bind up this domestic drama in Cold War conspiracy and interplanetary enigma. His father (Eric Peterson) is now a wealthy, god-fearing university lecturer with a new, all-American family, but his previous work trying to decode a message from space (known as the ‘voice of God’) is still sewn into the fabric of his everyday life, and the inheritance of his first sons.
His Master’s Voice is very loosely adapted from the novel of the same name by the Polish author Stanslaw Lem – whose sci-fi writings have also inspired, e.g., Jindrich Polák’s Ikarie XB 1 (1963), Andrey Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971), Pater Sparrow’s 1 (2009) and Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013). Shifting its action to the next generation, Pálfi’s film replicates the fragmentary nature of Lem’s novel by breaking up its own story into television transmissions, photographs (shown in rapid reverse-order montage), Skype calls, animated sequences, archival videos, and hallucinatory fantasies (of man-eating giants and procreative orgies). Though these mediated distractions, we – like Péter – must try to find our small place and significance in a sometimes indecipherable universe of otherness. The results are rich and strange, interweaving schlubby humour with astronomical awe.
© Anton Bitel