His Master’s Voice – movie review

His Master’s Voice is a provocative science fiction film from Turkey that places the genre in a much more intellectual setting than is the norm. It is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, as was Andrei Tarkovsky’s important classic film, Solaris. Like the film from Tarkovsky, this work asks far deeper questions than does the typically entertaining science fiction film. Tarkovsky used science fiction to ask deeper intellectual questions. With a deep sense of aesthetic symbolism and mysticism, Tarkovsky would embed complex visual ideas in every frame of his movies. Solaris featured a talking ocean, and the director of His Master’s Voice mentioned this to me after the screening as an intriguing way to view otherness and a much more open palette of considering alien life than is the case with more traditional science fiction. 

The director is very much able to view his subject matter from a less than obvious position. In a post screening Q&A, he told an interesting story about where he was from. Gyorgy Palfi moved from Turkey to Mexico City after Erdogan came to power, because the political environment in his home country had become repressive and scary. Since then, things have opened up, and he is returning home. It is an intriguing back story for someone who has made a film with such a wandering narrative.

The film examines multiple narratives intersecting with one another in very disjointed encounters. It seems to operate almost as a collage of different narrative perspectives. While Palfi is interested in the question of responding to contact from an alien civilization, he treats this as a problem of dealing with normal interaction between very typical human beings. Individuals are separated from one another psychologically and linguistically and have imperfect ties to culture. So how our own narratives relate to one another is always embedded in complex ruptures and intertwining, a moving system of encountering otherness through a larger field of discourse, life, and civilization. 

In this film, the disconnect between the protagonist and his father becomes metaphorical for seeking communication from far outside of humanity. The voice of the father becomes a metaphor for alien life. So Palfi is showing us that as individuals we seek meaningful dialogue from without, and as a species we do the same thing seeking for a communication from something different from ourselves. This makes a great deal of sense psychologically, as it basically studies an innately human structure of looking for meaning in language from outside ourselves. 

The director is excited about the possibility of humanity one day encountering life from off of our own planet, and his intent with the film is caught between realistic science making this very plausible and the complexity of how both oneself and culture as a whole could deal with the discovery. The movie then is a very intelligent dialogue with contemporary psychology and philosophy, especially of the European variety with thinkers like Lacan and Derrida who study complex narrative, breaks in language, and how culture shapes our understanding of our own very unstable identities. This is a film where science meets a sophisticated view of culture and where the fictional part of science is meant to be imaginative exploration of serious possibilities. 

The odds of life or its remains being found on a moon or planet within our own solar system look very reasonable, and as expanding NASA missions learn more about the astronomical environment around us, evidence points towards what should have been obvious: nature is uniform. So what exists on earth as chemical, biological, and geological processes almost certainly exists in other places, and probably in lots of places given the scale of the universe. The real scandal is not that life can exist somewhere else, but that human thinkers have been unable to process the information due to having a self centered worldview. Barring some bizarrely deluded commitments, chemistry, biology, and physics work sufficiently as sciences that there are probably similar things to find throughout the universe. Photos from probes sent to Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan show what looks like amazing variations on what is already familiar on earth, and that is from an absurdly small sample size out of trillions of planets and moons.

One thing that stood out to the filmmaker as important when we spoke after the screening was the development of quantum computing and AI. This itself opens the door to new possible types of intelligence that are alien to our own. The movie begins with a view of computer code, and this is a striking attempt to show a language we all encounter daily as somewhat alien. Programming is not so dense that someone who knows a computer language can’t tell what code does, but it is complex enough that there are unintended parts that are only known once code is deployed. That’s why bugs exist in software. As the complexity and speed of computers increases, the unknown portions of programming grow, and there can indeed be questions about computer languages posing issues as an otherness that we don’t quite grasp. Eventually they may well evolve into very sophisticated forms of AI. 

I would point to Jacques Derrida’s musings in The Animal that Therefore I Am showing us how alien, but also how similar, we already are in the face of animals. Given that alien life is likely to simply be a different configuration of biochemical processes from our own organisms, I would suggest that there is already alien life all around being taken for granted: every other species of animal on earth. Rather than connecting with the intriguing difference in thought that animal intelligence presents, human beings have very callously undertaken a process of destroying their own planet. Pet owners and other animal lovers all over the world are aware of being around other intelligences. So one thing I appreciate about the film is its willingness to challenge what “intellect” might be. I fear the reality is that human society is so motivated by economic exploitation of other beings that it refuses to acknowledge the obvious existence of important types of life besides the human being, and that insistence on living inside an enclosed bubble of language and culture is exactly what Palfi poses would be ruptured by contact with extraterrestrial life. 

Perspective, language, thought, and varying types of potential life are themselves so complex and multifaceted that there is not one narrative, and it is not easy for human beings to get themselves around the likelihood of other kinds of intelligence. Ample evidence shows that other organisms are quite intelligent already, but we can’t share a narrative with dolphins or with cats. The lack of communication or a linguistic interaction leaves the false impression that only human beings think. 

The encounter of another species from another planet with technology would certainly be an eye opener, and given the range of possibilities, age of the universe, and the absurdly rapid rate that computers have already advanced, the possibilities of how advanced some other life could be are endless. So it is reasonable to be excited about AI and quantum computing opening new domains of thought and technology that could lead the way to contact with other intelligences. 

How that happens can vary from Palfi’s point of view. The filmmaker was aware of Tarkovsky’s interests in mysticism and agreed that this is a way of conceiving otherness in the form of intelligence. This question of otherness is really the guiding issue of the film, otherness and voices. The voice of the father and the speaking as a breaking into the world of another, or a disruption of the expectations of the world formed by a civilization if the speaking comes from something outside of it, is the central point of concern for the film. 

The director said that the film went through many changes during editing to the point of having unveiled multiple narratives with heavy deviation from the screenplay that he started with. He discovered his film through the editing and chose the most straightforward version of the movie as the final. Yet, he likes the multiplicity of stories that the editing room discovered and plans to release other variations of the film over the internet. So there are many ways that this ruptured discourse of a voice from outside can happen, and many more narratives to be seen from the same film.

His Master’s Voice screened at the 42nd Denver Film Festival.

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