This demanding Hungarian film from director György Pálfi (Hukkle, Taxidermy) – who co-scripted with Zsófia Ruttkay and Nagy V. Gorgö – is billed as an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s 1968 novel, but it’s actually a sequel to it. The book concerns Horvath, a Hungarian defector working on a secret US program to interpret a supposed message from space. The film follows Péter (Csaba Polgár), a son Horvath left behind in grim communist Hungary in 1981, who comes to America in the 2010s with his fed-up girlfriend Dóra (Diána Magdolna Kiss) then hares across country at the behest of his handicapped, semi-genius, semi-crazed brother Zsolt (Ádám Fekete) to find out why the scientist abandoned his family. At the end of the desert trail, dotted with conspiracy theorists and cracked ex-scientists, Péter finds his father (Eric Peterson), who has changed his name to Hogarth and has a new wife (Kate Vernon) and family, and lives in a comfort well beyond the imagining of his bitter, left-behind old wife (Ildikó Bánsági, from Istvan Sabo’s 1980s films). The old man claims he sent his sons packages of baseball caps and American comics, which they never received – Péter wistfully muses that ‘real American Captain America comics’ would have made him king of his school playground – while the skyped-in Zsolt demands to know just what was it about the ‘space letter’ that was more important than the scientist’s sons.
A darker thread is that a side effect of the program to decode the signal, which manifested as a high-atmosphere burst of gamma rays, might have been the mystery spontaneous combustions of random folks, source of sundry conspiracy theories about secret government weapons tests. Interleaved with the relatively mundane road trip/family reunion story are more fantastical elements: in New York, Péter follows a random man on the subway who appears to have had his face cut out the way his mother cut his father’s face out of family photographs … in the desert, the night-driving protagonist sees a naked, grizzled human giant (God? An alien?) and is eaten by the apparition … and a few science-fiction-styled inserts suggest an outer story layer in which Péter and other random folk he encounters are ‘really’ future astronauts wondering whether to deploy a super-weapon against an unknowable alien presence. There’s are also many non sequitur asides – Péter finds his American half-brother (Marshall Williams) performing in a chintzy high school production of The Searchers, Horvath/Hogarth has joined a happy-clappy gospel congregation and taken up crochet, Péter has an erotic fantasy of reconciliation with Dóra that turns into an orgy with many and varied other women clambering over him.
Pálfi has a bold vision and manages complicated, astonishing moments with extraordinary confidence – travelling back in time in two great sequences, one as we scroll back through all the snapshots of Péter’s life in freeze-framable perfect detail (with father’s face missing), and another as the illustrated tangled Horvath family tree expands to take in a myriad ancestors back to the dawn of human history before resolving into a crochet rug that can be decoded as a binary message which may be yet another space letter. Well-acted and credibly spiky, the human-sized story takes up a little too much time which might be more interestingly used looking up at the stars. Péter and Zsolt are both hard to warm up to, though the film accepts that their early abandonment is only a partial excuse for appalling behaviour – and the question of whether Horvath defected for material comfort rather than the chance to do epochal science isn’t quite dealt with as we come at the meat of the story (Lem’s novel) from several removes. Still, quibbles aside, this is an extraordinary film.