The Film Society of Lincoln Center recently premiered Andrzej Zulawski’s 1988 science-fiction epic, On the Silver Globe, and as I was walking out the theater, I had understood that grasping the film would be rather difficult; not necessarily because On the Silver Globe is a challenging film to watch due to Zulawski’s experimental nature—although it is and more on this later on—but, because I think there’s a very fine line between the work of a true avant-garde genius and a rambling madman and Zulawski dangerously treads that line.
What I want to avoid in discussing On the Silver Globe, and what I ultimately worry about, is the danger of blindly praising the film only because of how unconventional it is. I therefore want to make sure that when I praise certain parts of the film, I’m clear and concise as possible in order to have an in depth and sound argument.
I think there’s also a danger in simply dismissing a work because of how challenging and unconventional it is. It goes without saying that films are highly complex, and what I’m trying to get at is that while criticism might boil down to whether or not a film is “good” or “bad,” this isn’t my goal in writing film criticism; what I enjoy is wrestling with the film and consequently the ideas that the film is trying to get at.
On the Silver Globe is filled with ideas. Some I think I understand and will analyze and argue for; others I don’t quite understand and will argue why I think the film’s esotericism does more harm than good.
In quick detail, On the Silver Globe is about a group of astronauts who leave Earth—we don’t really know why—and crash land on an unknown planet. The surviving crew of three, two men and one woman, begin a grueling journey towards the shore where they will begin life anew. Thanks to the planet’s atmosphere, children grow at an accelerated rate and it’s not relatively long before an entirely new civilization (about the size of a large tribe) arises thanks to the efforts of the astronauts.
The film can be seen as being split into about four parts. The first is the journey of the astronauts who land on the planet and their experiences making life anew. The second takes place in the distant future and deals with another astronaut from Earth who lands on the planet and is hailed as a messiah. The third part takes place somewhat simultaneously as the second and is about a different crew member attempting to piece together what happened to the so-called “messiah.” The final and fourth part which takes place after all these events is what actually opens the film, and this part deals with two other astronauts who land on the planet and watch a recording that details the events of the film.
Perhaps from that mere attempt at describing the plot alone then does it become more understandable that there’s a lot going on in On the Silver Globe, and that it’s a complex film to tackle. What I found so compelling about the film was roughly its first half—the part concerning the astronauts who landed on the mysterious planet and the lives of their descendants. Both the camera and acting play vital roles here that I think ground the film’s abstract themes into something palpable.
One of the original astronauts from Earth—who will later be called the “Old Man”—is obsessed with filming a record of his everyday life on the new planet. That video recording will later be sent to Earth and kick-start the second-half of events within the film. What draws me to the first-half of the film which prominently features the diegetic use of the camera, is that I see it as not only arguing for a film as a political tool but also as a way to capture and make tangible the abstract concept of human existence.
When asked why he’s always behind the camera, the Old Man answers that it’s the only way he can understand himself and the events surrounding him. The existence of the camera also causes characters to burst into monologues explaining their beliefs. These monologues are delivered with an operatic gusto thereby giving the film a sense of raw energy; that raw energy being the human experience made grounded. In short, the truth. The function of the camera in these scenes is to transform the incomprehensible into understandable. This element of transformation can be seen in how the camera draws out the truth from the subjects of the frame. That same truth which makes life understandable for the Old Man is also a political tool.
When the Old Man’s video recordings arrive on Earth, they’re found by an astronaut named Marek. Marek will then venture out to the mysterious planet, and when he arrives, he’s hailed as a messiah. The descendants of the Old Man and the other original astronauts, have become slaves to an alien group inhabiting the planet called the Szerns—bird-like human-monster hybrid creatures.
Being the “messiah,” Marek is made into the resistance leader of the people, and it is he that will lead the battle into freeing the population from the totalitarian grip of the Szern. It is Marek’s arrival and subsequent action into becoming a resistance leader that also shows how On the Silver Globe is a film about the political power of cinema. The resistance is brought about because Marek finds the film detailing the life of the descendants and be it fate or coincidence, that same film is the cause of a revolution due to it spurring Marek to go on his flight.
Interestingly enough, this political undertone seems to be why On the Silver Globe is unfinished. In a voice-over narrative, the beginning of the film details On the Silver’s cancelled production by the Polish government. The scenes that aren’t finished are in the film, however, albeit in a very different form. Zulawski reads the script for the missing scenes and supplements the voice-over by filming what was then modern Poland.
It wasn’t until the end of the Communist rule in Poland that Zulawski was finally able to finish the film. Yet, I don’t think this is necessarily why I dislike the second-half of the film. In fact, the bulk of On the Silver Globe is finished and it’s only a handful scenes that are indeed read out. It’s also not that there’s anything praiseworthy about the second-half; throughout the film’s entire running, the production remains superb. Costumes give a vibe of being a well done pastiche of various science-fiction/fantasy settings, and like-wise, sets are also given extreme attention to detail, whether it’s the primitive villages of the new civilization or the sprawling space hub located back on Earth.
The reason why I dislike the second-half of the film is the lack of the camera’s role but the retention of other elements that just don’t work without the use of the diegetic camera. Zulawski continues the use of explosive monologues, but we have to question who are they for and what is their purpose? At this moment, I don’t make much of it and so the monologues come off as esoteric nonsense that drags on for too long. It’s unfortunate then, that this is a bulk of On the Silver Globe’s second-half: visually striking yet incoherent.
On the Silver Globe is a difficult film to watch due to its narrative complexity. At three hours long and still being unfinished, what the film suffers from is being too bloated. I don’t think the ideas in the second-half of the movie work quite as well as they do in the first-half due to their lack of political undertones. The result is that these scenes are made bare and what’s left is a sense of frustration resulting from a film that’s just too abstract. But that doesn’t necessarily mean On the Silver Globe is a film to pass up. Despite narrative jumps, the first-half of the film draws you in with intrigue through its abstract qualities, before giving you the tools to decipher what’s on-screen. Zulawski and his crew have also created a truly unique sci-fi world with meticulous attention to detail and combined with Zulawski’s odd style, On the Silver Globe as a whole becomes an enchanting experience of awe and wonder.