Test Pilota Prixa (1978)

Hi all, Nate here. Today I thought I’d look at an old-ish sci-fi movie about androids and how they will change humanity in the future. And by “change”, of course I mean “enslave and exterminate us when the machines gain sentience and take over“. This will happen. In the meantime, though, as the technology advances robots/androids will be able to perform dangerous tasks that we fragile and emotional humans suck at. Specific to our movie, deep-space missions to the outer planets would be a heckuva lot more efficient if we didn’t have to pack so much food and water and clean underwear. Test Pilota Prixa was made during that uneasy period in the 1970s when it was becoming clear that self-aware androids were not going to be the stuff of speculative fiction for very much longer. Those on the cutting edge of the technology could see that the day was coming that humanity would have to accept that our equals (superiors?) would be made of hydrocarbons and steel and we better figure out a way to deal with it sooner rather than later.

Before they steal our women!

Set in the “very near future”, our movie opens with a really great set-piece in a laboratory building where scientists are animating “Non-Linears”, the term for androids in this film. Guys in hazmat suits push around carts of disconnected synthetic flesh covered arms and legs while other guys fire up electrical discharge devices and turn dials and flip switches to bring their creations to “life”, great visual images. It’s spooky and well-done, indicative of this movie’s fairly large budget and the director’s attention to detail, though in some ways the best scene in the film comes way too early.

Android coming to life.

Our hero is Commander Prix, astronaut and adventurer in the employ of the United Nations Space Command, or whatever runs the world’s space business now. He’s skeptical of the idea that robots can do space missions better than humans, but he’s also willing to be proven wrong. To that end, his bosses want him to lead a mission to Saturn with five other dudes. The rub is that one of the dudes is actually a next-gen prototype Non-Linear, so well constructed that no one, not Prix, not the other dudes, maybe not even the android itself, know which who is human and who is not. The test is to see if Prix can find the robot using his wits and experience and thus prove that humans are better than machines (or something). Sounds like Blade Runner, doesn‘t it? Yes, but that wasn’t made until years later.

Not exactly Leading Man looks.

So after a pointless James Bondian adventure subplot where some sinister organization is shown to be trying to sabotage the mission, Prix gets to meet the five dudes in the run-up to the Saturn flight. They are, predictably, virtually indistinguishable, bland-faced square-jawed guys who must practice making serious faces and furrowing their brows in the mirror every morning because they are really good at it. Here they are…

Pilot John Calder.

Co-Pilot Harry Brown.

Doctor Tom Nowak.

Engineer Jan Otis.

Engineer Kurt Weber.

Can you tell which one is the android? Neither can Prix, nor us the audience, though I’m sure if I had a dog it could tell (learned that from The Terminator…).

Look at that wide tie, awesome.

So they take off in a stock footage Apollo rocket (really?) and arrive at a huge orbiting space station (nice model!). The station seems to be empty (huh?) but they’re just here to get into a smaller spaceship called the Goliath for the final leg of the trip to Saturn. They light the fires and kick the tires and off they go into the great unknown. I’ll stop a second to praise the interior design work on the spaceships so far, as they really look like actual spaceships, nary any day-glo disco strobe lights or banks of flashing blinkers or ridiculous neon tubes to be seen. The spacesuit designs are also top-notch, some serious money was put into the practical look and aesthetics of this movie and I likes it a lots. The crew dress like submariners in duty uniforms with boots and OD Army undershirts and helpfully wear nametags (even by movie‘s end I still can‘t tell most of them apart).

Lots of silver at first.

Gives way to khaki and brown.

However, I’m going to have to go on a whiskey-fueled bazooka rampage because, once again, the GODDAMN prop guys had flames shoot out the back of their model rocket and the GODDAMN director filmed it horizontally so that the flaming exhaust curves upwards in outer space because JESUS H. CHRIST PEOPLE WHY THE FUCK CAN’T ANYONE TURN THE GODDAMN CAMERA ON ITS SIDE SO I DON’T HAVE TO KEEP RAGING ABOUT THIS?!?!?!?!!? AHHHHGHGHHG!!!!!!


Anyway, Mission Commander Prix starts to get a little spooked at his secondary mission of figuring out who the robot is, and understandably so. Suspicion initially falls on Otis, who is chunky and unattractive, but Weber and Calder aren‘t doing much to convince anyone their innards aren‘t made by Sony and GE either. Prix takes Brown into his confidence, sure that he at least is human, but he begins to second-guess that eventually. The other crewmen don’t seem to mind that Prix is watching them, they’re all curious who the robot is, too. It’s not long before everyone starts to suspect everyone else, and individually several of the men come to Prix in private to earnestly tell him why they think the robot is this guy or that guy. At the end of all the Machiavellian machinations, Prix is just as confused as ever and still no closer to finding out the truth.

Mealtimes are stressful for Prix.

Urgency is of the utmost as Prix realizes that the robot is sabotaging the spaceship for some reason, damaging critical components and generally making a nuisance of himself. The mole even slips a video tape into Prix’s cabin, containing some sort of rambling pro-robot manifesto about how humans are weak and hairy and will all be crushed under their metal jackboots or something. There’s hints of a hidden conspiracy afoot, either by the robots themselves or by the shadowy organization that makes them, but it’s never really that clear and really doesn’t matter much to the plot in the end anyway.

The video is in disco mode.

Eventually they reach Saturn and are passing through the outer limits of the rings in no time (Spooky FTL travel?). They zap some asteroids with a lazer gun and then launch a probe into Saturn’s system. It’s then that things fall apart as whatever the robot was messing with causes the Goliath to suddenly lose control and flop around. While the models are fantastic, the optical effects and blue screening are simply terrible, completely crushing any sense of realism and often making me laugh out loud at how cheesy they look. Spent all that money on set design and costumes and then let a homeless guy do your VFX work, really?

Your focus control is off.

Well, it turns out that stoic blonde pilot guy Calder was the robot. Prix suspects this when Calder disobeys his orders and flies the Goliath directly into Saturn’s rings and nearly kills them all before his devious plan can be thwarted. Hi g-forces rip Calder’s skin off, exposing metal and wires beneath and he‘s sucked out into space. Later it’s hinted that Nowak is maybe also an android (hell, maybe the entire crew were robots?), though only Calder seemed to want to murder everyone. They fly back home and all is well, contracts are signed, people get paid, and Prix goes back on vacation in Patagonia with his sheep dogs.

His hands, they’re made of metal!

If I glossed over a lot of plot points, that’s because I can’t understand 95% of what’s going on. This is a Russian movie filmed in Poland and subtitled in Spanish, and since I only speak ‘Murican I have to muddle my way through with blind guesswork and wikipedia summaries. If there’s an English dubbed/subtitled version of this out there, I can’t find it (let me know!). Despite this, I was very impressed with this movie’s technical presentation, the attention to detail in the sets and props, and the brooding, moody atmosphere it managed to hold on to until the end. Worth a watch.

What? What? …what?

Written in June 2014 by Nathan Decker.

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