MUCH LIKE TARKOVSKY'S 1979 adaptation of Stalker, another book written by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God doesn't look like science fiction. The story may take place on the distant planet of Arkanar, but this world is well behind the advances of our own; its inhabitants are stuck in an intellectual mire as thick as the mud that cakes their streets. Suspicious of any artistic intent, Arkanar's natives are dubious of any advances that go beyond the ability to shit in a hole in the ground.
Into this world are placed a gaggle of Earth scientists—they're on Arkanar simply to observe the goings on, lest they interfere with the potential growth of this society. And while they're treated like royalty, they bristle with an obvious desire to help these filthy, primitive people.
The final film of director Aleksei German, Hard to Be a God centers on the tension between the natives of Arkanar and the scientists—but conflict frequently takes a backseat to the film's dreamlike and dizzying logic of the black-and-white cinematography. German's camera swoops around each scene as if trying to maintain focus after a few too many swigs of vodka, and to add to the eerie feeling, German has many of the actors directly address the camera, as if the audience is just another person stumbling through the action.
Like the characters trying to negotiate Arkanar, Hard to Be a God is a sodden, unwieldy affair, hampered at times by roughly translated subtitles. (These don't help when it comes to the film's portentous commentary, most of it about the strain of anti-intellectualism that has the potential to infect modern-day Russia and the rest of the world.) But any laborious moments are worth enduring to visit the bizarre, strangely beautiful world German has created.