Sunday, January 29, 2023

Delta Space Mission (1984).

Can we all just admit that the 1980s was the last great decade for art?  I know I've painted a target on my head for saying that.  Anyone who wants to can accuse me of bias in this regard.  However, I don't think that's something I have to worry about all that much.  From what I've been seeing and hearing lately, all I've done is spoken a near unanimous opinion.  The best about saying something like this that it isn't an idea confined to just the 80s kids like me who lived through it.  It's easy to got on the Net and find countless testimonials by Millennials and Zoomers who are willing to share in the sentiment.  I think the best tribute to the decade I've heard is from someone who said: "I didn't live it, but I do miss it (web)".  I guess that makes me kind of lucky, in a sense.  I got to enjoy as much of it as I could before the curtain was wrung down on that entire aesthetic period.  I was born in the year that Orwell made famous, which means I was sort of ideally situated in the middle of that decade.  So it meant I was just in time to enjoy all the best that era had to offer.  In that sense, there both isn't all that much to talk about, and yet there's a lot of everything worth talking about, if that even makes sense. 

My own experiences of the 80s matches up pretty well with those of others.  I saw a lot of the same shows and movies growing up back then.  Two of my first childhood memories involved being introduced to a music composer with the curious name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and then finding out a funny yet cool looking car known as a Delorean that could travel through time.  The ones that really stuck, however, was being introduced to a Galaxy Far, Far Away, and following along as a young immigrant mouse tried to relocate and reunite with his missing family.  Bare in mind, I must have been like four or five when I was allowed to watch all this, so I guess you could say I had some pretty cool parents in that regard.  I think all of those films, when taken together can serve as a useful barometer for what helps that decade stand out from all that's come after it, at least.  It really does seem that it represents one of the last great flowerings of creativity on a grand cultural scale, one with enough talent and inspiration to it that it makes sense to declare it as the last great period of Romanticism in the field of the Arts.  It's a mindset that I think we should try and recapture a lot more often when we can.











For me, one of the great things about having an 80s childhood is that in addition to the the usual standbys of that decade, there was also plenty of room for experimentation and risk taking in the arts that just doesn't exist in the current artistic climate, no matter what anyone else may try and tell you.  I'm talking now about artistic products that were and are well out of the mainstream, yet still somehow manage to carry this quirky sense of genuine, popular appeal.  This is the area of the 80s where you run into your cult classic offerings like Brazil, Time Bandits, and The Dark Crystal.  I've known, and have been able to get some kind of enjoyment out of all of these films.  However, I'm also sort of talking about stuff that's further on and sometimes more far out than the usual standbys.  I'm starting to think I may have been more lucky than most 80s kids.  Yes, it's true I got to experience stuff like Garfield and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  However, for whatever reason, I was also able to find entertainment in films and shows that were a lot more out of the mainstream, even to this very day.  I'm talking now about the types of films that remain obscure even by the standards of the 80s, and yet they remain just as defined by that whole period as any of its most famous products.  This was my childhood years.

Most everybody knows about Transformers or G.I. Joe.  How many out there are familiar with The Mysterious Cities of Gold?  Yes there were The Smurfs and Fraggle Rock.  Now who here has ever heard of shows like Count Duckula, Belle and Sebastian, or Spartacus and the Sun Beneath the Sea? Here's where I think I got a really lucky 80s childhood looking back on it all now.  I was given a chance to wade further out into obscure waters of entertainment that remain relatively uncharted to this very day.  I'm talking about shows and movies now that are so obscure they have no choice except to be labeled as under the radar type gems.  In other words, no matter how objectively good their quality may be, it's almost like they will always have the deck stacked against them because they never got enough attention from the pop-culture of their time.  We're talking the kind of material that no one in the mainstream will ever hear about in any great quantities.  We've entered the realm of obscure animated specials like Dot and the Kangaroo, Twice Upon a Time, or maybe even the film up for discussion.

I came across Delta Space Mission by pure accident.  It was just there one day on the 366 Weird Movies website.  Perhaps the fact that I was even there in the first place should be the real clue to some of the more "out there" aspects of my cinema going tastes.  I'm not as die-hard about it as the folks who run that website are.  I'm afraid I'm a bit too comfortable with the mainstream of entertainment.  However, that interest in the quirky and the off-beat is still there, and sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll stumble across something from your childhood, or else just the past in general, that satisfies the desire for both the artistic and the creatively tripped out.  Those kind of films, in other words, where everything seems to be going along as normal, and then it all takes a left-field turn into Surrealsville, or else it's just one of those efforts that manage to generate their own trippy yet endearing atmosphere.  What I read about this film at the 366 website made it sound like one of those movies.  The type of obscure piece of outsider animation with far out visuals and a crazy plot to match the film's deliberately weird style.  The review was able to accomplish what any work of that kind should do.  It got me interested in wanting to get a look at this overlooked example of surrealist Science Fiction for myself.  So, after saving up enough to buy a copy, I had a look for myself.  Here is what I'm able to tell you about the movie.

The Story.

To describe the story of Delta Space Mission is almost not to do it justice.  A bare bones plot synopsis makes it come off as a combination of the familiar and the intriguing.  The whole thing takes place sometime in the 31st, century.  By the year 3084, mankind has finally realized its dream of being able to both touch and commune with the stars.  The opening setup presents the viewer with a quasi-Trekian setting as viewed through a European continental lens.  While it's difficult to tell if there is anything like a United Federation of Planets, it is at least possible to say that peaceful contact between other worlds has been established, and that everyone seems to be getting along well enough.  Out of this cluster of co-inhabiting star systems emerges a small, simple, personal spacecraft that almost puts one in mind of an interstellar Volkswagen.  It belongs to an extra-terrestrial girl with blue-green skin, named Alma.  She turns out to be a roving (perhaps the more accurate term is star-hopping) broadcast journalist for her home world, known as Opp. She specializes in breaking news across the galaxy, wherever it may take her.  Basically think of an inter-galactic version of Martha Raddatz minus the combat situation (at least to begin with) and you might gain a starter's knowledge of who she is.

Today, Alma's assignment takes her to a familiar, blue-green planet, populated by that puzzling species known as Earthlings.  There are plans afoot on that world to launch what is known as the Delta Space Station.  It's goal is to serve as a combination unmanned exploratory satellite, and emergency rescue beacon and aid provider.  With most of the intelligent species inhabiting the known galaxy all present and accounted for, the Station Delta will serve as the first probe into the uncharted regions beyond the Milky Way system.  It will be charged with the task of recording new life and/or civilizations and, with any luck, the establishment of a further harmonious contact between species.  Alma is there to both document the building of the station, and record what everyone working on it hopes will be a successful launch.  At the very heart and core of the new Station is its central A.I., which will be in charge of controlling the flight through space, as well as maintaining all its day to day functions and operations.  This is none other than Delta itself, the first intelligent computer to be placed in charge of an entire, multipart space faring vehicle.  It's a momentous, not to say expectant day at the orbital launch site for the whole enterprise.  Though when she gets there, Alma's arrival is what turns more than a few heads.

She proves to be diligent in her assignment, reporting on all that transpires as the Station's personnel complete their final preparations before sending the satellite and its A.I. into the stratosphere.  However, it is Delta itself that manages to capture Alma's imagination.  When she gets her first glimpse of it, she can't help but marvel at the skill with which it was all put together.  Alma finds herself forced to admit it is a "thing of beauty", and the professional journalist finds her imagination set alight at the idea of such a computer traveling through the starts.  What she and everyone else fails to take into account is that the A.I. has become fully operational by now, and is able to record and note everything that happens around and within tracking range of its sensors.  This includes the newly arrived, turquoise skinned, actual beauty who has just crossed its path.  It seems the computer was recording the compliment Alma gave it, and is now at work trying to analyze what she means by this new concept known as "love".  The trouble sets in once you realize the potentially fatal contradiction of a thing that is incapable of being something it is not.  Just as it is impossible for even the most intelligent dog to achieve a level of cognition even to the status of human beings, so it is impossible for a machine to function in the same way as a fulling cognizant, self-aware subject.  A machine can try and mimic the nature of a conscious mind, yet all it can give off is a series of simulated pretenses; not the real thing.

When a machine such as Delta is introduced to the concept of "Love", all it can do is collate and examine the phenomenon.  It is entirely another thing to be able to assimilate such a concept into one's own being, for lack of a better word.  Still, the A.I. was programmed to be an assimilator of all the knowledge that gets passed its way, and now Alma has introduced it to ideas of affection.  With this new datum in its possession, Delta now finds itself stuck in an irony.  It has made contact with the representative of an extra-terrestrial species (however unwitting the encounter on her part), and the meeting has thrown it into a conundrum which it can't escape.  It has found a concept that requires further study, and for some reason, this sends the A.I. into what can only be described as a very bad glitch mode.  After reaching the conclusion that it "requires more data" in order to understand the "concept of Love", Delta begins to malfunction in such a way that puts the lives of everyone onboard the station in mortal jeopardy.  Together with the rest of the mission personnel, Alma is able to evacuate the Delta Space Station just before the A.I. breaks its moorings and exits Earth's atmosphere.

The whole thing amounts to a sort of PR debacle, and our intergalactic journalist is there to report it all.  Normally that would be the end of such fiascos.  There would be a good deal of public scorn and humiliation to go around, a lot egg would get on the faces of some very important personages, and several once pilloried reputations would take a nose dive way, way down.  To get a sense of how bad the fallout from this kind of situation can be, imagine if you discovered the only job Albert Einstein could get afterwards was being the local night manager of a Wendy's just off a turnpike somewhere.  That's the kind of fate waiting for a lot of otherwise smart people after a fuck-up of such epic proportions as this.  

However, what no one realizes at the moment is that the real trouble is just getting started.  Delta may have left Earth orbit, yet it didn't go far, and its sensors are designed to be sharp enough to pick out someone walking or lounging around on a beach somewhere from several light years away.  This is what the A.I. is able to do while Alma continues to cover the fallout from a local seaside.  The problem is simple.  Delta needs more data on this concept of "Love".  Alma is the only person anywhere who seems to know what this word means.  Ipso ergo, this leaves the A.I. with no choice but to "collect" her, and grill her for more information.  This is a goal that the computer will not allow anyone to get in the way of.  And pretty soon, it doesn't take long before Alma finds she has to run for her very life.

A Possible Anti-Totalitarian Theme?

This has turned out to be one of those films that might have surprised me.  I left my initial viewing of it thinking I'd just seen one type of story.  Then I read up on the behind the scenes details that went into its making, and this new information manages to transform what I've seen playing out on the screen.  This is not something I was expecting to happen, by any means.  I originally thought I had a good read on the narrative and its meaning, and that there was nothing else to add.  It was all "set in stone", in other words.  Instead, the addition of a vital piece of information is enough to transform a creative idea that you thought you knew.  Now, I feel I ought to stress that while it's true this is not something I ever expected to happen, it's not something I can complain about.  On the contrary, some of the best viewing or reading experiences out there are the ones where the story manages to sneak up on you in a legitimate good way.  It leaves you with not just a new understanding of a film you've just watched, it also gives you the pleasant notion that you've had your mental horizons expanded a bit.  The frontiers may have been just a minor advance, and yet there has been a growth in knowledge of a sort.  That's the kind of thing that's always meant to be appreciated.  I've also seen this type of thing happen enough times to say that while it isn't a common occurrence, it does happen often, every now and then.

In this case, what seems to have happened is that it is just possible to claim there is a carefully hidden anti-totalitarian theme tucked away within the folds of this brightly colored space adventure.  The film's visual and musical stylization puts one in mind of having entered one of those old, classic, 80s video game arcades, the kinds with plenty of flashing neon lights, and bright, upbeat colors, with red, blue, and yellow being the most predominant decorations painted across all the consoles, lunch tables, walls, floors, and ceilings, while the Steve Miller Band pounds away on the speaker system.  The very description itself should be enough to give you an idea of perhaps the first half of this film's approach.  What I'm perhaps beginning to realize is the way the film's animators make what in retrospect is a very a deliberate choice to lean into this whole era-centric aesthetic approach.  It is possible to give at least two reasons for this particular creative choice.  The first is pretty obvious on a number of levels.  By now, things like original Star Wars trilogy had finished its initial run, with Return of the Jedi being released just the year prior.  So it was the prime time for film's like this to gain a foot in the door.

The second half of the first part of the movie's equation is also self-explanatory enough.  The guys who made this were all a bunch of fanboys.  It was made by a trio of Romanian animators, Calin Cazan, Mircea Toia, and Victor Antonescu, and its clear from all the passion they've placed into the finished product that all three filmmakers are clear fans of the Sci Fi genre.  Even the simplest of their background layouts is filled in with minute details that sometimes leaves the viewer wondering how all the gears, screens, dials, and sometimes even the alien plant life hanging around beyond the foreground could possibly function.  The film has been compared to the work of French animator Rene Laloux, and its easy to pinpoint the influence of avant-garde Sci-Fi like Fantastic Planet exorcising a clear influence on the visuals.  Here's where the interesting part comes in, however.  A cursory look at the story's plot (such as the one I started out with) might leave the viewer thinking that while it's clear there's lots of visual invention to be had, there's no way such a product can have as many ambitions as those of Laloux, Roland Torpor or the rest of the crew who made La Planete Sauvage.  However, a closer look at the film's source material leads me to wonder if more is going on beneath the surface.

The first clue for the possible hidden depths of this film comes from a simple observation of the Mondo Digital review of the film.  In the course of their brief summary, the website notes that "Unlike many of it's Western counterparts, this one has to stick within the stringent restrictions of the Ceausescu-led Romanian government (web)".  There's a lot of commentary packed into that simple sentence of observation.  The short and simple (though true enough) version is that Toia, Calin, and Antonescu all had to work withing the confines of the Cold War Soviet sphere of influence.  This is something Calin is quick to highlight in an interview featured on the Blu-Ray/DVD supplementary content.  There the director goes into as much as he can about working within a heavily censored society behind the Iron Curtain.  The Berlin Wall itself may have fallen years ago, Calin intimates, yet a lot of the problems from that era still hasn't gone away.  Another idea that the director of Delta Space Mission seems to hint at (and something that might have gone clear over the head of the critic interviewing Calin) is that perhaps the real truth is that the Cold War never ended.  It's with these contextual thoughts in mind that the director's comments on the literary inspiration for the film helps put things into perspective.

In his interview, Calin states that
"Our story started from the idea of a Romanian poem from the late 1800s by Mihai Eminescu, ‘Luceafărul,’ which talks about the impossible love between Luceafăr (Evening Star) and an emperor’s daughter. Then we slipped in the story of the relationship between the computer and the alien journalist Alma, linking the action to what we had seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey (web)".  Turning from this comment towards even a basic summary of the poem that lies in back of this Sci-Fi feature proves to be eyebrow raising indeed.  As it suggests perhaps everything we need to know of the actual themes and potential satire that Calin and his team have put together, all those years ago.  Much like the film, the poem in question concerns the love that a star being has when he falls for a mortal woman who happens to catch his fancy.  An outline of the plot goes as follows:

"The eponymous celestial being, also referred to as "Hyperion", is widely identified as Eminescu's alter ego; he combines elements of fallen angels, daimons, incubi, but is neither mischievous nor purposefully seductive. His daily mission on the firmament is interrupted by the calls of Princess Cătălina, who asks for him to "glide down" and become her mate. He is persuaded by her to relinquish his immortality, which would require approval from a third protagonist, the Demiurge. The Morning Star seeks the Demiurge at the edge of the Universe, but only receives a revelation of mankind's irrelevancy. In his brief absence, the Princess is seduced by a fellow mortal. As he returns to his place in the sky, Hyperion understands that the Demiurge was right (web)".  Such is the basis from which Antonescu, Toia, and Calin build their own story off of.  However, in doing so, the filmmakers seem to be constructing a deliberate interrogation of their source material.  Eminescu's poem posits that humanity is, at best, a problem to be solved or, at worst, a kind of disease or plague to be avoided.

It's an entire mindset which Calin and his team seem dead set against in their own riff on Eminescu's work.  In fact, with the director's insight in mind, what we've got on our hands amounts to little more than a retelling of the poem which acts as both a response and counterpoint to the source material's Schopenhauer style pessimism.  Rather than showing humanity robbed of free will, and at the mercy of mere fate, the movie showcases a group of individuals who are capable of taking charge of, and even shaping their own destinies.  It's in the way the movie handles its two main leads, however, that Calin gives us the best idea of his reply to the kind of Gnostic turpitude of Eminescu's verse.  Rather than the admittedly problematic sounding idea of a mortal woman being at the mercy of a celestial star being, Delta instead gives us Alma, a literal non-human being from the stars who is still not bound by the rules of any kind of nihilistic Demiurge.  Instead, the film presents her as a loving, caring, self-determined woman with a career of her own and an innate curiosity to explore the mysteries of the universe.

Meanwhile, the other main lead of Eminescu's story is recast not as a living star, but rather as a giant hunk of metal whose resemblance to the Death Star might just be part of the whole point.  The fact that the former main character of the Eminescu poem has been reduced to an essentially mindless machine is perhaps a fitting enough commentary on the way Calin, Toia, and Antonescu view the star being of their source material.   The entire film then becomes this greater allegory on the nature of free will and autonomy versus a slavish obedience to the dictates of meaningless Schopenhaueran cynicism, or the Nietzschean Will to Power.  These are all ideas contained in the original verse narrative, by the way.  The critical commentary on Eminescu's work notes how he joins this troubling, almost fascistic strand of Gnosticism with the ideology of the Ubermensch.  The idea being that the only way for the chosen few to circumvent the problems presented by humanity is by becoming "superhuman (web)".  It is the exact same type of thinking which characterized the atrocities of such regimes as the Third Reich.  

As a final capper to all of this problematic material, one of Eminescu's commentators notes how the poet "identified love itself with a damsel in distress situation and voyeurism, both of which, he argues, exist in the "erotic scenario" of his deliberately crafted nihilistic personal myth (ibid).  With this final bit of extra, added misogyny on top of everything else, the problematic nature of Eminescu is complete.  To their collective credit, then, the director and animators of this miniature space opera all prove to have their hearts in the right place.  The entire plot of their simple animated film becomes one long, feature-length rebuttal to the fringe reactionary nature of the poet and his his Gnostic musings.  In which sense, Delta Space Mission might be termed as an instance of inspiration through opposition.

Much like in the original lyric narrative, the events of the film's story are kicked off once the attention of the Hyperion stand-in is caught by the appearance of a beautiful lady.  The difference here is that, unlike Alma, the other main driver of the plot is not a free-willed being from the stars, and instead an essentially lifeless automaton.  All it has to work with is its main computer program, which means that like all machines, it is capable merely of whatever it is told to do, nothing more or less.  In the Delta AI's case, this means the gathering and collating of all possible information that comes its way.  Alma is the first person the machine has run across that has ever given it information about the nature of love.  It's the merest off-hand, chance remark.  Indeed, the script and its characterization of Alma makes clear that there's nothing at all romantic about her statement.  It's no more than an example of the same kind or type of expression one would make in admiring what some might consider a well made work of art.  The difference here is that Calin, Toia, and Antonescu seem to be urging the use of caution in such judgment calls.  There not saying that such sentiments don't have a legitimacy to them.  Rather, the director and animators seem to be hinting that some things are more deserving of such praise than others.  In their minds, this would happen to include works of inert, stainless, soulless machinery.

It's the kind of prudent artistic lesson that Alma soon begins to learn in earnest.  With no programmed constraints to hold it back, the Delta Station A.I. doesn't so much malfunction or "go rogue" as proceeds to highlight the mental blind spots of its programmers by first breaking the Station free of its moorings, sending it careening out in to space, and then (true to the inherently "voyeuristic" principles of Eminescu's poem) proceeds to try and capture Alma for itself, thus trying to enforce a "damsel in distress" role on a character who never asked for it in the first place.  Nor does she ever take things lying down, either.  From the minute her life is threatened Alma simply refuses to become the kind of object, or "ornament" demanded by Eminescu's poetry or outlook.  Instead, she proves herself instrumental in not just finding a way off the Delta Station for herself, yet also the other personnel who are trapped along with her.  She manages to all of this while at the same documenting the failure of the A.I. both for posterity as well as the necessary tasks of correcting what is fast turning into a major emergency problem.  Calin and company then proceed to highlight the peril of Eminescu's thought showing the A.I. as not being able to leave well enough alone.  It outright stalks Alma for the rest of the film.  It follows her first back to Earth, where it goes into Kaiju mode in an effort to track her down.

It then proceeds to chase her through the galaxy as she tries to make her way back to what she hopes will be the safety of her own home world.  From here, the rest of the film settles into a cozy kind of "chase film" mode familiar to viewers of similar fare such as The Fugitive (1993), or Run Lola Run (1998), except this time it's all set in outer space.  Even here, however, the film never loses sight of the critique it is making.  Even when the filmmakers feel the need to lighten the load of the film with some comic relief moments, it's kept in sight that what's powering all of these moments is the relentless, voyeuristic pursuit of Eminescu's mindset in the allegorical form of a crazed computer.  This extended confrontation with the poet's essentially totalitarian mindset all comes to a head when Delta manages to capture Alma, and tries to force her to become a part of the machine, for lack of a better word.  In order to do this, however, it first require an explanation of the concept of "Love".  I think it's here, in these penultimate moments between man, woman, and machine that Calin approaches the heart of the film's themes.  The crux of the argument the centers perhaps not so much on the Delta computer's infatuation with the main character, but rather on its built-in necessity for "information".  Alma has introduced an unknown quantity into its calculations, and now it needs to assimilate her if necessary, in order to complete the equation.  Hence it's need to possess her in order to solve the equation of "Love".

The entire film has a kind Star Trek ethos at its heart with this denouement in mind, really.  It's the kind of situation you could imagine Kirk and Spock having to square off against.  In fact, that's sort of the role Alma falls into during the final confrontation.  She finds herself trapped by the entity that has been (as in Eminescu's poem) flat out stalking from almost the very beginning.  Yet rather than giving up with out a fight, or remaining (or worse, being reduced to) a passive figure in the presence of a genuine threat, Alma is first able to asses the situation, and then calmly solve it to her advantage in a way that the A.I. seems incapable of matching.  She basically winds up playing the Kirk role to Delta's Borg, if that makes any sense.  She challenges it on the one level at which it can be met, that of data gathering and analysis.  She asks the machine why it has taken such an "interest" in her, to which it replies that she is the new data of "Love".  Therefore she is "information" that must be added as storage to its data banks.  The machine never at any point says "Resistance is futile", yet the basic gist is there in spirit.

The way our heroine defeats the big, brainless collection of circuit boards is to first ask it what Love is?  In response, the computer shows its natural limitations.  As a machine, it can neither think or feel, it can only process data, which isn't the same thing as thought, interpretation, or above all, experience.  In that sense, the idea of a machine falling in love is a basic, ontological contradiction in terms.  This is the fundamental contradiction that Alma confronts Delta with.  It approaches her in the shape of a rational self expressing a need, and yet it isn't even capable of true rationality.  She goes on from there to provide a catalogue of all the ways in which her very life differs from the simulacrum of a machine.  To paraphrase Shakespeare, Alma elucidates all that Delta can never have, "eyes, hands, organs, senses, dimensions, affections, passions, etc".  Most important of all, she tells the machine of how she has "friends and loved ones" both on Earth, in addition to, and not at all exclusive from, her home planet.  It's kind of a neat line, if you're paying attention, as it suggests the concept or idea of the "mixed partnership".  This is something the poet Eminescu would never have allowed in either art or life.

Much like in the TOS Trek episode, The Ultimate Computer, Alma is able to draw the A.I. not just to a standstill, but also cause it to shut itself down.  The program has been given a thorough debriefing of its failures and malfunctions.  It therefore submits itself once more back into the hands of its now admittedly chastened creators.  In the strictest sense, there's nothing new about this setup and resolution.  What is notable about the filmmaker's efforts in this instance of the trope is that they don't use a normal Earthling, but rather a non-human (which is not at all the same as inhuman) extra-terrestrial star girl as the foil which helps the viewer reach a clear understanding of the difference not just between man and machine, but also the difference between a free will and a servile mind.  There's an interesting, almost Venusian quality to the main character at the heart of Delta Space Mission.  She's got a way of not just resolving a conflict in a peaceable manner, she also does it in a way that grounds the film in a sense of shared humanity.  In this sense, the director's choice of letting the protagonist be an alien begins to make all manner of perfect sense.  She works as a perfect metaphor for the dignity of a free mind, and the difference between living a real life, and one that is just spoon-fed to you.  These are all qualities the filmmakers admire, and they hint that they are lacking in writer like Eminescu.

Conclusion: A Surprisingly Pleasant, Thought-Provoking Trip.

I seem to have won some kind of luck of the draw when I was born.  I didn't just get to experience an 80s childhood, with all the kind of baked in awesomeness that can sometimes come with it.  I was also, somehow, given the opportunity to take what in retrospect turned out to be a lot of necessary detours into the weirdest and wildest aspects of the pop culture from that decade.  This is something I mentioned right at the start of this essay, and yet it bears repeating once more at the end.  The reason for this is because its the only way to give the reader a sense of the proper context for a film like Delta Space Mission.  It inhabits a strange, though often fun gray zone in 80s pop-culture.  Perhaps it makes sense to call a film like this niche, though even if that's the case, it's in pretty good company.  It inhabits the same, out-of-the-way corner video shelf next to items like Return to Oz, the films of Ralph Bakshi, or the forgotten animated cinema efforts of of Jean "Moebius" Giraud.  It's that one spot in the imaginative landscape of 80s culture where all the films amount to a series of examples where the artists involved decided to say "the hell with it", and then just let their imaginations run wild.

This is the realm of Terry Gilliam's Brazil or kids Horror fantasies that play out as if the entire action exists within the dream state of the main character, such as an overlooked 1987 offering called The Gate.  This is something that I know is so true that's it's almost elemental to my way of thinking about the Arts.  At the same time, I'm also aware of how hard that can be to convey the kind of imaginative space I'm talking about.  Though perhaps a good illustrated example can help the reader get at least a faint idea of the type of stories I'm thinking of here.  I guess the best picture I can grant you of the kind of 80s nostalgia experiences I had might all have to be contained in a simple, 14 minute music video.  

It's nothing special, bear in mind.  You're not about to enter the polished world of Michael Jackson, or anything like it.  In the strictest sense, it's no longer considered as pop music.  It's a short animated vignette drawn to the tune of a piece of music known as Ravel's Bolero.  I think what's most important about it to me, both now and when I first saw it as an 80s kid, lies in the almost casual way the piece has of not just painting in a landscape, but doing so in a way that suggests the faint glimmerings of realization.  I didn't quite have the right words to describe my first experience watching this at the time, yet even then, it's like I was just smart enough to know that I'd just had a formative experience.

It was one of those, off-the-cuff, chance encounters that is all down to a simple question of channel flipping at the right time.  I think what happened is my Dad might have been tube surfing and the video above was just playing as he wandered past an early, era-centric version of HBO, or something like that.  I do have memories of that channel being more willing to take greater risks than it does now, so that might have been where we found it.  Anyway, it featured cartoon dinosaurs and my Dad thought I might like that, so he called me into the family living room, and that's how I first saw it.  The whole thing was this combination fever dream-drug trip.  What makes it work, then as now, is the deliberately highlighted contrasts.  The animation style is like something out of an MTV music video, and yet the soundtrack isn't Rock, but Classical music, and its all playing out to these weird visuals.  The imagery itself is cartoonish, and yet there's this familiar looking kind of dark edge to it, the kind of fantastical aesthetic that a lot of 80s fans can point to, even if they never have the right words to it.  The whole thing is like a Pink Floyd or Yes album come to life.  I almost want to go out on a limb and say the animators of that short film might have been able to come the closest at capturing something like the tap root well from which a lot of the kind of gloriously weirder 80s cinematic fare emerged from.

The same kind of vibes you get from movies like Labyrinth, Blade Runner, or even some of the more peculiar moments in Don Bluth's best work.  It's all the same kind of shared, surrealist Romanticism, and the 80s were the moment when this strand of artistic and visual storytelling had reached their peak.  This is also an aspect of our nostalgia for the 1980s, and my concern is to make sure it doesn't get lost in the shuffle in the streamlining of our collective memories.  It's too easy for a lot of obscure gems to get lost in that kind of cultural recall shuffle.  A film like Delta Space Mission is very much a part of this same, shared tapestry of surreal 80s fantasy.  It is the final product of a complex mixture involving European, avant-garde, art house styles combined with one of the most popular of the fantastic genres.  In terms of influences, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that aside the Eminescu poem (which also qualifies as an influence through opposition), the other major source of inspiration for Calin and his crew seems to be that of Heavy Metal magazine, and the kind of look and feel it created for New Wave Science Fiction.  It was a style and atmosphere which has gone on to be the modern face of the genre to Sci-Fi fans the world over.  Like all the fantastic settings in Star Wars and Blade Runner, each and every one of those visuals all had their start in a French magazine that once broke new ground.

The only problem is that we've lived with this prototypical idea, or image of what modern Sci-Fi looks like, that we're in danger of forgetting where it came from, and how it was made.  Once more, we have artists like "Moebius", and other names that are sadly in danger of slipping through the cracks, such as Phillipe Druillet.  These were the artists and illustrators responsible for creating the modern landscape of the space fantasy genre.  And there's no doubt in my mind that filmmakers like Antonescu, Toia, and Calin were not just familiar with the magazine, they were also expert enough to mimic what might have been known back then as like this sort of Heavy Metal house style, and apply it to the field of animation.  All of the visuals in Space Mission are able to recall, or sometimes flat out mimic the content of a typical Metal Hurlant panel.  In other words, it's the kind of film that would make guys like "Moebius" both proud and flattered.  In fact, it's not going too out on a limb at all to say that the whole film feels like the kind of story you would find in the magazine itself.  It's perhaps the best compliment that it's possible to give to the efforts of Calin and his team.  They have captured the look, feel, and even the exact same kind of writing you would expect to find in the last great age of Sci-Fi fiction.

What I'm left with is a film that snuck up on me in all the good senses of the term.  All it amounts to is stumbling across an overlooked genre offering, and then having it give you the kind of story that wins the day by surprising you with the levels of sophistication that have gone into it.  It's the kind of film that reveals its secrets to you in careful layers.  You look at it the first time, and come away thinking it was a nice little romp from a simpler age.  The kind of time when audiences and artists still thought it was okay to just allow a Science Fiction movie to have a bit of harmless fun with itself.  There is at least a sense in which this is still what the film is doing, and yet there's always more going on beneath the surface.  You come back to it a second time, and it becomes a rather telling commentary on sexual boundaries, and what the difference is between real love, and a mere "dangerous interest" that has no regard for a woman's privacy.  At last, you come back to it knowing all about the literary and historical context that birthed this surprising offering, and it becomes an exploration of free will versus the kind of mindset that would try to force any and everyone into a state of slavish servility.  By the time the film is finished with the viewer, it has gone from a harmless bit of fun amongst the stars, to an actual examination of what freedom and tyranny are in relation to the true facts of reality, and why it is necessary for everyone to try and keep on fighting for the sake of the truth in the midst of others who seem psychotically bent on snuffing it out.  That's a very relevant message for the current moment. 

This is not to say that the final product is heavy-handed going, by any means.  Far from it.  In fact, even when the full truth of the movie's themes are realized, it still keeps to its initial atmosphere of a fun romp through the stars.  Calin's film handles its story way lighter than Gilliam is able to with his own Brazil.  And it's far more fun-loving than films like The Wrath of Khan, or especially the film adaptation of Heavy Metal (1980).  As I said, this movie is the product of a time when everyone felt it was still okay to allow Science Fiction to have fun with itself.  Nowadays, the only way it seems anyone is willing to take this kind of film seriously is if they go out of the their way to make the final product as dark as possible, and the grimmer things get, the better it's held to be.  The punchline of course is that this is a film made by people who were, and still are living under the boot of tyranny.  So this means they have a clearer view of things than anyone living anywhere else.  Rather than getting bogged down in any sort of personal inferiority complex because you happen to like stories about space ships flying through the galaxy, Toia, Antonescu, and Calin all realize that what's needed more than any pearl clutching is exactly the kind of story that would act as a strike against the dull walls of imposed conformity by crafting a film that is ready to leap for joy by aiming at the very stars themselves.

In that sense, they have created one of the best possible antidotes to a socially constructed machine whose soul purpose is to break the human spirit by crafting a film that celebrates all the things in life that stand against it.  Perhaps the greatest irony in this for me is that it is precisely the people who have experienced the worst forms of totalitarianism who are able to reach a clearer insight into the kinds of stories that can help for a challenge against it.  It's with all these discoveries in mind that I'm able to call Delta Space Mission a very pleasant and timely surprise.  It's a very effective combination of anti-authoritarian critique which also acts as a potent medicine for malaise and melancholy to anyone who might be struggling with the current state of things.  The closest thing I might have to a complaint is the shortness of its length.  At just over 70 minutes, it is possible to get the sense that the film has ended somewhat abruptly.  However, on giving even this further thought, it helps to tie the movie in with its Metal Hurlant roots.  It plays out with the same freshness and brevity as an offering found within the pages of the very same magazine from which it draws a lot of its inspiration from.  Which means the film has managed to keep with the type of literary spirit that Calin and crew are drawing from.  

For all of the reasons cited above, it's easy for me to give a film like Delta Space Mission an easy recommendation.  It's a nice and pleasant blast from the past, that still speaks to us with a voice that perhaps can help urge us into at least some idea of a new and better future by telling good stories.   

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