The GUTS of particle physics are the Grand Unified Theories, a romantic notion of elegant super-symmetry which suggests that three supposedly different force fields (electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear) can, in fact, unite to become one under extreme high energies. This unification may lead to an understanding of the construction of the universe. It’s the scientist’s own Book of Genesis. The Grand Unified Theory is an appealing explanation for both scientists and artists, because of its beautiful mathematics and metaphorical significance. Looking to space for coherence and understanding seems counter-intuitive, but dreamy in its possibilities. And Slava Tsukerman, the director of Liquid Sky, recognizes this paradox and builds art around it in his latest film, Perestroika.
Perestroika brings together the search for structure in the universe and the restructuring, or “perestroika”, of post-Stalinist Russia. Sasha Greenberg (Sam Robards) is a Jewish astrophysicist returning to visit his native city of Moscow after emigrating to the U.S. seventeen years prior. The Moscow he sees now feels foreign, a place of chaos and juxtaposition. Vodka is rationed, the impoverished wait in line for meager pay, and there is a general sense of desperation and bewilderment. Sasha tries to reconcile this climate of change with the physics conference where he must present a paper on the structure of the universe. How does one make sense of what is so infinite and beyond our reach while also struggling to understand one’s surroundings? It is universal and particular, a paradox of existence in a field that strives for order and elegance against the backdrop of a world in shambles.
And then there are the women, orbiting like planets around Sasha as if he were the sun--or a black hole that might swallow them up and destroy their careers and identities. Helen (played with tight smiles and nervous energy by the egregiously underrated Ally Sheedy) is Sasha’s American astrophysicist wife, who sacrificed brilliant research for babies and domesticity; Natasha (Oksana Tashenko) is the muse of our hero’s college days and mother of Elena (Maria Andreeva), who may or may not be Sasha’s daughter; and Jill (Jicky Schnee) is Sasha's mistress and the director of a movie about global warming. Her film-within-a-film furthers Tsukerman’s presentation of chaos. For Sasha, each woman is a human manifestation of Moscow, evoking feelings of immense nostalgia.
Perestroika plays like a dream, as past and present blend together in colors, emotions, words, and pictures. Tsukerman, obviously influenced by Fellini, is obsessed with a fantastical reality, one that seeps in and out of consciousness, dripping with paint. And what better subject than outer space to indulge such a fixation? The only device that taints this trippy camera haze is Sasha’s voiceover narration. (I can’t watch a narrated film without my left eye starting to twitch. I blame John Cusack.) It also doesn’t help that Sasha’s voiceovers are borderline sentimental, rather than philosophical. We don’t want to hear the tour guide on the Wondrous Boat Ride. The visuals are enough. If only Tsukerman had given Sasha more to expound upon concerning the structure of the universe, we would’ve been spared narration like, “I was eager to reevaluate the life of all other beings populating our planet.” A clunky script is the quickest way to diminish the ingenuity of a director’s vision, and Tsukerman’s Perestroika is too important to get cheated by voiceovers.