CAPSULE: Stanislaw Lem's space pilot Pirx is given a double task. He is to orbit two satellites in Saturn's rings and at the same time see if he can detect which of his crew is actually a humanoid robot. This Eastern European co-production has engaging ideas floating around, but feels off-balance through the entire story. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Stanislaw Lem's character Pilot Pirx came to the screen in a 1978 film. Though the film was a Polish-Russian-Estonian coproduction the first half of the film is set in the United States. It seems to be a Soviet film with an American hero. Human-looking robots have been invented and given the unexplained name "non-linears" as if they are expected to be out of line. Unfortunately for the corporation selling non-linears, the public is suspicious of the robots. A decision is made to have a demonstration proving that non-linears are indistinguishable from real people on the job. Pilot Pirx is given a mission to Saturn's rings and given a crew of five, or rather four humans and one non-linear. Pirx will not be told which of his crewmembers is the robot. Instead he must decide for himself which of the five crewmen is not a human. It will not be easy because even the human crewmembers seem mechanical. TEST PILOT PIRX was produced four years before BLADERUNNER, and the theme of a test to distinguish robots from humans appeared in film here first.
What Pirx does not know is that another group of robots does not want the space pilot performing this test and is trying to kill him even before he leaves for space. Like many films of these years-- apparently even Eastern European ones--there is an effort to shoehorn in a theme of Cold War intrigue probably inspired by the then popular James Bond films.
Once Pirx is in space the tone changes from action thriller to cerebral mystery. One crewmember claims to be human, another to be the robot, but Pirx does not know if he can believe either of them. He must proceed with his task of putting two satellites in orbit within the rings of Saturn. Incongruously, after a while in space the focus shifts to a courtroom inquest into Pirx's actions. As with the film THE CAINE MUTINY, the courtroom becomes a mechanism, albeit an awkward one here, to explain Pirx's actions earlier in the film. The special effects are kept to a minimum and not particularly convincing, but they are sufficient enough to tell the story.
Stanislaw Lem is well known in his native Poland but very little known in the United States by anyone but long-time science fiction fans. Lem (1921-2006) was the premier science fiction author of Eastern Europe. He is the author of THE SILENT STAR, TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT, SOLARIS, THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS, CYBERIAD, THE INVINCIBLE, and A PERFECT VACUUM, but his best-known work is probably SOLARIS, which has been adapted to film twice. TEST PILOT PIRX is of course based on one of his stories: "The Inquest" from TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT. The film was made in 1978 and the story was published in the United States in 1982 in his short story collection MORE TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT. This film won the "Golden Asteroid" at the 18th International Cinema Festival at Trieste in 1979.
For fans of the small collection of Eastern European science fiction films--and there are just a handful of these films--TEST PILOT PIRX is something of a find. Two other such films, based on Lem stories, are the Soviet SOLARIS (directed by cult director Andrey Tarkovskiy) and THE SILENT STAR (a.k.a. FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS). The IMDB suggests Lem also contributed to IKARIE XB 1 (a.k.a. VOYAGE TO THE END OF THE UNIVERSE). I rate TEST PILOT PIRX a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080010/
At the time of this writing TEST PILOT PIRX can be streamed free of charge at http://stagevu.com/video/zugcqarivgjx or http://tinyurl.com/leeper-pirx.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper