First, I dearly love the poster, which I presume is Polish, because Polish film poster art is always the best:
Stanislaw Lem’s PILOT PIRX stories are always considered to be on the softer end of his output — less philosophically knotty, less difficult. People take that to mean that the Pirx stuff is confectionery. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting stories.
The setup is fairly standard. Top spacepilot Pirx is assigned a mission to lay probes in the Cassini Division, with a twist: some of his crew are androids, and he has to guess who is synthetic and who is human. If the android(s) evade detection and pass this fairly over-the-top Turing test, they get to go into mass production. The stress of this burden may prove too much for a new artificial mind with otherwise superhuman resources. Which leaves Pirx with the condundrum at the heart of the story: how can human weakness be used to thwart artificial superiority?
“Pirx is known for his unblemished honesty… as a human being, he does have some weaknesses.”
The androids herein are termed “anthropoid automations, so-called ‘finite non-linear.'” Pirx: “The pilot’s union will never allow it.” Space pilots union!
This is a Polish/Soviet co-production, and the biggest sign of that is the appearance of Alexander Kaidanovsky, star of Tarkovsky’s STALKER, released in the same year (1979). Also of note: Arvo Pärt scored a good deal of the film, which is kind of amazing, done in the year before Pärt left Soviet Estonia, where the Soviet end of things was sourced.
There’s an oddly Western feel to a lot of it: a Pam Am plane, people reading NEWSWEEK in English, mentions of the UN and UNESCO, Pirx in a denim leisure suit like Steve Austin, talk of Soviet-US cooperation, a Ballantine’s Scotch Whisky-branded ashtray. One imagines that, for at least some section of its original audience, that must have let some alien futurity leak into the setting.
Some of the camerawork has an unusual documentary feel to it, which compares interestingly with what must have been, for the place and period, an expensive production. It’s talky like British sf tv of the same period. There’s a lovely bit where a speech at the UN about the non-linears becomes one frame in a four-part screen showing the testing of crash dummies, all done in black and white.
The back half of the film is inside the spaceship, and it’s actually a marvel of solving design with little money. It’s utilitarian, clever with its use of space, drab in a way that mirrors ALIEN (which must have been in production at the same time) and well-directed. The ending, as convenient and telegraphed as it may appear, has a wonderful piece of imagery at its core, and the coda works to destabilise what came before. It’s a lot of fun, it looks and sounds great, and it’s thoughtful in that wonderful, lost 1970s way.