MIGHT CONTAINS SPOILERS, I HAVE NO IDEA
Oh, this looks good: I'm always up for a spot of science fiction. Alternative speculative versions of history where this happened instead of that, when so-and-so won that war instead of losing it, when that bloke became king instead of the other bloke. What would life in the year 2015 be like if the Roman Empire had never fallen, if the continents had never split, if the dinosaurs hadn't been wiped out, if Africa had colonised Europe? In this specific instance: what would happen to humanity if the Renaissance never happened?
Hard To Be A God takes place on a distant planet named Arkanar, where a human species is developing along Earth lines and is approaching the Renaissance, and a team of Earth scientists are there to witness it. Except that it doesn't look to be taking place on schedule: rather than embracing science and ideas, it looks to be rejecting enlightenment and instead sliding backwards into medieval barbarism (imagine a planet of first-series Baldricks just grubbing about in the dirt and babbling, with no Blackadders to look up to) so maybe the team should kickstart it and give this alternative humanity a prod in the right direction?
That preference for passive observation over active intervention is of course one of the main tenets of the Time Lords; indeed there's a very good Tom Baker story, The Masque Of Mandragora, in which an alien entity seeks to prevent the Renaissance and permanently sap mankind's energies and ambitions. Hard To Be A God seems to focus on one of the scientists who has apparently gone native and, rather than guide the Arkanar people to the future, appears to be heading back to the Dark Ages with them. I say "apparently", "seems to" and "appears to" because Hard To Be A God is not a film that's big on clear plot and narrative. What it's definitely big on, though, is misery. Misery, squalor, rain, despair, mud, ugliness, filth, rain, shit, grime, blood, cruelty, dirt and death. I cannot recall a film so utterly downbeat, so resolutely draining of all glimmers of hope and joy and life.
I suppose I should mention that it's in black and white, which puts it squarely in the arthouse box and emphatically not for anyone looking for a good night at the pictures or a fun Friday rental. I suppose I should also mention that it's Russian, so parallels are likely to be drawn with Tarkovsky's lethally slow SF epics Solaris and Stalker (the original novels of Hard To Be A God and Stalker were both written by the same brothers), equally miserable and depressing films which are equally unwilling to let the audience in. And finally I should point out that Hard To Be A God runs for a scratch under three hours, and your brain and backside both will be fully aware of every punishing minute.
On the plus side....it's gorgeously photographed, and the long takes give the film a kind of dreamlike feeling (helped in this by the absence of music save for the occasional sax solo). But it's just damned hard work and the fact that it looks fantastic is small compensation.Indeed, it may be that the German adaptation of the source novel from 1989 might be a better choice for an actual story (I discovered this other version while seeking out the trailer on YouTube, because I wanted to know how the hell you're supposed to sell this thing to an audience). It certainly looks more accessible and less difficult and according to the IMDb has Werner Herzog in it.
But I did make it to the end. I won. And now pretty much any movie is going to be a cakewalk in comparison; after Hard To Be A God the bar has been lowered and I feel I could now watch anything. I have no more fear of the worst that Adam Sandler, Al Adamson or Michael Bay have to offer: I have looked misery square in the eye and survived; I don't want to do it ever again, but at least I know I can.