Image copyright Joi Ito (1975)
Running time: 89min
When Joi Ito made his unsettling documentary about a man trying to take over the world, he probably didn’t think the world would be taken over by his film. Only a few short years later, however, a director called Ridley Scott did just that. The visually stunning “Alien” brought us unexpected answers to questions about murder, kidnapping, deportation, and death-panel torture.
Without giving away any surprises, let’s just say that “Alien” is the moment that gave a significant number of people the idea that movies could have as profound an effect on our real-life existence as anything on television.
Ito also seemed to know something about the afterlife, or at least some pretty deep reserves of angst that, one could argue, was directly responsible for the rediscovery of Buddhism. You know, the religion that, in late 20th-century Japan, itself started as a reaction to the upheavals that came after World War II? (“From the time of Imperial Japan, Buddhism was confronted with a profound crisis,” Jigme Singha Tulku, the 16th Dalai Lama, writes in his memoir, Taipei on His Mind).
You can tell even without reading Tulku’s book that “Earth” is a good movie. But you can tell more because it was made by Joi Ito, a film pioneer, one of the few living filmmakers who continually refuses to comply with the camera industry’s strictures on exacting, absurdly fine point. (When “Earth” was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, a handful of knotty lighting issues or camera movements threatened to close the film, and the amiable A.D. Lee, a Japanese projectionist who had worked on Ito’s first films, had to be called in and seemingly magically fix it.)
Tensions are high, despite the restrained, lucid style, throughout “Earth.” Even the quiet moments seem to hit you in the gut. There are overlong conversations between Ito and a correspondent; later scenes are restricted to actors faking private moments, without having their faces caught on film. And it is one of Ito’s few mistakes, when he decides to give the story and the real character a fresh start by finding a new protagonist who takes the sense of incomprehension more seriously. Still, Ito is rewarded for his lack of deference.
The history of Japanese cinema has many heroes: Hisashi Ishikawa, who made such masterpieces as “Timeless,” a 10-hour reflection on human existence, and a man named Sachi. Ito comes the closest to capturing Sachi’s spirit, the unhinged pixie who drops his skirt when he believes the food is not hot enough. But Ishikawa, who often made works of implied sexual torture to stir our emotions, and Ito, who made some of the best, most dazzlingly made films of the sixties, are both disappointments.
“Earth” could be the next “Earth, the Final Solution,” if Ito had focused on it instead of inventing what he called a “modern magic realism.” (He meant the 1970s Japanese pop movie phenomenon that made people think their nightmares were actually films.)
But as a charming, sweet science fiction movie about the gravity of the universe, the boredom of life on a world dominated by extraterrestrials, and the impending danger of losing your natural sense of place, “Earth” is the best movie I have seen in a long time.