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HARD TO BE A GOD [Es Ist Nicht Leicht Ein Gott Zu Sein] (1990).

Based on a 1964 novel by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky (whose work was also adapted for Andrei Tarkovsky's STALKER), this epic sci-fi/fantasy/historical-adventure melange from director Peter Fleischmann (DOROTHEA'S REVENGE) has a set-up that sounds like an episode of STAR TREK, the look of a EuroTrash CONAN rip-off, and delightfully bizarre moments sprinkled throughout. Shot in the Ukraine and Soviet Asia, this joint West German/Russian co-production is elaborate, intriguing, occasionally ludicrous, and arrives with a beautiful subtitled print... In a savage time ruled by superstition and religion, a warrior named Rumata (Edward Zentara) crosses the land on horseback, meets the batshit King of Arkanar (Pierre Clementi) and visits an imprisoned merchant (Werner Herzog, in an all-too-brief role). Rumata is quickly suspected of being an impostor, and they're right, because this guy in the cheap HIGHLANDER wig is actually Anton, a Earth historian from our far-off future. He's part of an exploratory space expedition studying the primitive culture of this "sister planet," with Anton transmitting images to the rest of his crew -- currently circling the planet in their mothership -- directly through his eyeball. Yes, it all sounds very silly, but Fleischmann maintains an entertaining mix of mindless action (Anton carries two handy swords and use 'em frequently) and thoughtful ideas (literacy and science are banned, since the rulers dislike peasants having access to knowledge). Meanwhile, Anton sets up home in the city, butts head with the King's sinister minister Reba (Alexander Filipenko), and searches for the scholar Budach from neighboring Irukan, who is this world's best hope of pulling society out of its Dark Age. Anton is only supposed to "observe" this alien world, but as he witnesses good people murdered, inventions (like their first printing press) destroyed and Reba hungry for power, self-control takes a backseat to revolution... Though 128 minutes long, the film is rarely boring. Written by Fleischmann and longtime Bunuel-collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, they overload it with sci-fi ideas (on future Earth, war, injustice and emotions have been eliminated), striking sadism (Reba's Inquisition-style "God Machine," used to slaughter dissenters), occasional sex (all of the women, from royalty to servants, want to jump hunky Anton), and a deliriously crazy finale of wholesale killing, worship and chaos, with a modern-day helicopter(!) thrown into the mix. The special effects are often cheesy, but cinematographer Pavel Lebeshev (KIN-DZA-DZA) gives it the proper grunginess, the actors play it straight and it's refreshing to see a rousing, bloodthirsty tale with no shortage of philosophical underpinnings. And don't forget to stick around for the hilarious, English-language, power-ballad theme song over the end credits! Ouch!

© 2007 by Steven Puchalski.