Look, by now you know I love Czech Science Fiction comedies, particularly those made during the Czech New Wave.
For that matter, I love even their more serious Science Fiction films from the same era.
And yes, I also love just about every Czech comedy I’ve seen from the Sixties on.
But for some time now, I’ve assumed that the films made after the end of that period weren’t as good. Yes, it is true that they no longer talked as openly about what things were like in Communist Czechoslovakia. And it is true that many of their best directors were banned from work, some of them permanently.
But it is amazing just how many of these typically strange and black but somehow sprightly and light-hearted comedies they made after the “Normalization” began when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1969.
And anyone familiar with Soviet era science fiction knows that it was often used as a way to safely tell the truth about their own times.
Jindrich Polák was one of the best writers and directors working during this era, and he made two of their best science fiction films: the intense, space exploration drama, Ikarie XB 1, and the wacky 1977 comedy, Zítra vstanu a oparímse cajem [Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea].
Mind you, even before the tanks rolled in, most of his films were children’s films, and, when he moved into television in the Seventies, most of his work was still aimed at children.
Which leads us to a near-legendary TV series which remains one of his greatest achievements. Návstevníci, or The Visitors.
In the year 2484, the world is nearly perfect.
Too bad it’s doomed, though: a huge comet is about to crash into the Earth. While it might be possible to evacuate those in most danger to the outer space colonies, there is another possibility.
The great Academician, Filip, points out that his hero, the legendary physicist, Adam Bernau, told a rather curious story in his autobiography about the formula he’d worked out that would make it possible to move entire continents with ease.
The only problem is that this inspiration came to him when he was just a boy, and he wrote it in a notebook.
But that notebook was hidden in his favorite secret hiding place under the floorboards of his childhood home when the house burned down.
To Filip, the answer is simple enough: go back in time, retrieve the lost notebook, and put Adam Bernau’s formula to work to save millions of people from the deadly comet.
His crew have all been painstakingly selected by the Central Brain of Humanity, the super computer which controls everything upon the earth. However they are all terrified of travelling back to the unimaginable horrors of the Twentieth Century, even though the CBH has provided them with everything they could possibly need: period clothes, lots of cash, a collection of dual purpose gimmicks, and, of course, their time-traveling Lada, which is far more capable than the real thing.
The only problem is that their clothes are badly out of date, they have no idea how to behave in the distant past, and their disguise as highway engineers has made them the most fascinating people in the entire village.
And, just to make things worse, within minutes of their arrival Fillip accidentally burns the very notebook they are after…
The first episode is a bit slow, but once the Visitors reach the Eighties the story really hits its stride. Rather than the budding mathematical genius they expect, Adam is a big-time troublemaker who is far too interested in girls, while his “great teacher,” Alois Drahoslav Drchlík, turns out to be the town drunk.
…Only it isn’t quite that simple. Alois Drchlík proves to be a thoroughly remarkable man — a humble and philosophical handyman with a gift for fixing almost anything and a truly shrewd mind, sharpened by his years as a janitor at the university, who has chosen to take the blame for many of Adam’s more destructive pranks — while Adam has an inquiring mind, which is just beginning to blossom under Alois’ lessons.
And with a little prompting from Filip, who hopes that Adam will find the formula before they have to leave.
Those of you familiar with Iron Curtain science fiction will recognize that the Visitors’ future is yet another version of the perfect socialist future we’ve seen in so many of these films. However, it plays a very small part in the story, and merely serves as the background for our poor, harassed heroes’ bumbling attempts at understanding Czechoslovakia in the Eighties. Nor is the future quite as perfect as it is supposed to be as the CBH keeps making strange little mistakes.
Most of which cause a lot of trouble for our hapless time travelers.
Part of the fun here is that legendary Czech animator Jan Svankmajer provided some rather goofy little bits of animation — like the Nasper Jelly, the Visitors’ main diet, which goes through a wild series of transformations as they prepare it, with different, delicious-looking types of food appearing in the growing jelly, before finally ending up as…
An orange block of what looks like Jello.
Every single time.
All of the effects are fun and effective, with a somewhat larger-than-life, slightly unrealistic quality which fits in so well with all the absurd comedy. The best of these are reserved for their Lada, which is loaded with silly gadgets, can change its color scheme on demand, leap great heights, move at incredible speeds over impossible terrain, and in a bravura sequence, burrow right into the Earth.
We’re talking classic Czech comedy, with a seemingly simple premise which gets insanely complicated as things go on, lots of absurd humor, strong characters played by a collection of some of the best Czech actors of the Eighties, inventive effects, great design, and a totally unexpected ending, when we learn the real truth about the coming disaster, and no one notices poor Mr. Drchlík has once again saved the day.
I have to give a lot of credit to Vlastimil Brodský, who plays Drchlík: he creates a complex and well-rounded character who is intelligent and very perceptive, a problem solver with a great understanding of the world around him, a gentle man who is happy to help his friends, who has mastered the art of life in his own humble way — and yet, there is a tinge of sadness to him as well, perhaps because those around him rarely recognize his gifts.
But then, the rest of the main cast are excellent — particularly Josef Bláha as the self-assured (perhaps “stuffed shirt” would be closer) Filip, Josef Dvorák as the expedition’s technician Emil (who quickly discovers a love for sausages and beer), and Vladimír Mensík as the increasingly frustrated local police officer, who knows that something is going on and is sure that Adam and Mr. Drchlík are responsible.
Even more credit has to go to the script which Polák wrote with the help of his frequent collaborator, Ota Hofman: its fifteen episodes give them far more space to complicate the story and add in lots of interesting minor threads, while still giving the characters a bit of room to breathe. The effects are quite good in a somewhat toy-like way typical of these Czech science fiction films. However, I suspect that the budget might even have been higher than in the typical feature of the era as we do get a surprisingly large number of effects (particularly in the future world of 2484) even if they are mostly concentrated in a few episodes.
I’m not even going to pretend to be dispassionate about this one. I love The Visitors. It is intelligent, thoughtful and yet very funny. It has a lot of great comedy, some of it very physical, and a healthy dose of absurdity — and the big twists at the end will leave you laughing for quite a while. It’s one of the best science fiction films to come out of Czechoslovakia, and it is well worth whatever trouble you have to go through to find it.
Just don’t expect it to be easy…