Three Soviet spaceships are approaching Venus on the first expedition to the planet when one is hit by a meteorite. The two remaining crews go ahead with landing but local conditions and the wildlife prove to be quite a problem.
The Russians had jumped out in front in the space race with the launch of Sputnik, and film director Pavel Klushantsev had reflected that triumph with his film ‘Road To The Stars’ (1958), a semi-documentary that traced the history of rocketry but also speculated on the future of space exploration. This included an orbiting space station and a mining colony on the moon. It turned out that project was merely a dry run for Klushantsev’s first step into full-on dramatic science fiction, here depicting the trials and tribulations of the first manned expedition to Venus.
Unfortunately, our heroic cosmonauts don’t get it all their own way. Far from it. One of their ships is destroyed just before going into orbit by a pesky meteorite, and things don’t work out so well on the ground, either. One of the crews is stranded in a cave while their robot has a strange mental episode, and the other finds itself attacked by a large plant with tentacles and some annoying lizard men. There’s other life on the planet’s surface too in the shape of a Brontosaurus, and a very strange wailing that sounds like a woman. Worst of all though is a large rubber pterodactyl, which looks like a distant relative of that other triumph of SFX muppetry ‘The Giant Claw’ (1957).
Now, all this may not sound impressive, but there is some real quality work here. Although the film is not remotely accurate in its depiction of Venus given what we know now, the film provides a surprisingly convincing alien landscape. The rocky surface is rendered in rusty browns and deep reds, constantly in turmoil from volcanic action and extreme weather. Yes, the flora and fauna are corny, but the ambience is other worldly, and the ruins of a higher civilisation now underwater is a nice touch.
Similarly, the spacesuits, helmets and spacecraft interiors are mechanistic and functional, a world away from the tinfoil and motorcycle helmets of some of their Western contemporaries. In fact the suits look a lot like the ones in Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ (2012). Disappointingly, however, the film’s on rather too familiar ground when it comes to its attitude toward the only female member of the expedition. She gets to stay behind and man the homefires in one of the orbiting craft.
Legendary B-Movie producer Roger Corman liked what he saw and bought the film for U.S. distribution; only he replaced the female cosmonaut with actress Faith Domergue (‘It Came From Beneath the Sea’ (1955)) and added Basil Rathbone at Mission Control with footage shot on the same set (and probably at the same time) as that for ‘Queen of Blood’ (1966). Spliced in with the Russian actors and an English soundtrack, it became ‘Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet’ (1965) and was unleashed on the unsuspecting American public.
But that was not the end of the film’s long journey! Rather brilliantly, it was re-cut yet again as ‘Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women’ (1968); this time featuring 50s blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren leading a group of hot, young Venusians in seashell bras who worship the rubber pterodactyl thing. These inserts were shot by Peter Bogdanovich, who was Oscar nominated only 3 years later for ‘The Last Picture Show’ (1971).
This slice of Russian science fiction is pleasingly practical in many ways, and provides an intriguingly alien off world atmosphere. However, the characterisations of the protagonists are paper thin, and the drama is often derailed by its more dated, and goofier, aspects. But it’s serious tone is a pleasing antidote to the ‘creature features’ that tended to still dominate the U.S. scene at the beginning of the decade.