Nebo Zoyot/The Sky Calls/Battle Beyond the Sun (1959/1962)

‘They say that around the stars, it’s very windy.’

After visiting a scientific institute, a writer imagines a space-age future of glorious exploration featuring the researchers he meets. In his vision, two competing crews attempt to be the first to land on Mars…

Serious-minded science-fiction from the Soviet Union, with directors Mikhail Karyukov and Aleksandr Kozyr delivering the appropriate heroics. However, the impressive SFX, designed by Yuri Shvets and realised by Nikolay Ilyushin and Frantsisk Semyannikov, tend to overshadow the human drama.

Journalist Troyan (Sergey Filimonov) finds his imagination fired up by visiting a scientific institute. In his mind’s eye, he sees the scientists he has met as pioneers in an intergalactic future. Chief executive Ivan Kornev (Ivan Pereverzev) is now in charge of an orbiting space station, prepping the first manned trip to Mars. He’s even planning to crew it himself, along with pilot Somov (Valentin Chernyak), much to the concern of his wife, Korneva (Aleksandra Popova). However, preparations are disrupted by visitors, Verst (Gurgen Tonunts) and Klark (Konstantin Bartashevich), in their spaceship ‘Typhoon’. These renegade astronauts are secretly planning to use the space station as their own jumping-off point to the Red Planet.

When Pereverzev shares information about the station’s own expedition, Tonunts and Bartashevich take off at once, injuring Chernyak during their hurried takeoff. Pereverzev immediately assigns engineer Gordienko (Aleksandr Shvorin) as the pilot’s replacement, and they launch their craft in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, Tonunts has not allowed sufficient preparation time for their attempt and the ‘Typhoon’ goes off course, threatening to plunge into the sun. Pereverzev and Shvorin mount a successful rescue attempt, but it leaves their own craft with insufficient fuel to either reach Mars or return to the station.

In many ways, this is a typical Soviet science fiction picture of the period. Flush with the success of launching Sputnik 1 as the world’s first artificial orbital satellite, an unconnected series of films followed with a common theme: Soviet scientific genius. Obviously, it would only be a matter of a few years before cosmonauts walked among the stars. Although these films can be broadly regarded as propaganda, they’re also infused with a real sense of optimism about the future. This example also includes a surprising call for international co-operation in space exploration. Tonunts and Bartashevich are never explicitly identified as Americans, although their origins are heavily inferred by some brief library footage of ‘back home.’ However, they are never painted as out-and-out villains, more as misguided souls who are (somewhat ironically) place national pride above the good of humanity.

For the most part, the drama is predictable and relatively standard for this kind of enterprise. There’s the inevitable shower of 1950s meteorites, the dated technical discussions and a good portion of daring heroics and self-sacrifice. However, there are a few elements that tag it as a Soviet film. Perhaps most noticeable is the presence of Popova as head of Mission Control, but there are also the usual flat, business-like characters. There’s some expression of human emotion, but most of it is reserved for Tonunts and serves only to demonstrate his general instability and weakness.

Unfortunately, all readily available prints of the film are in poor condition, which does affect viewer appreciation of the SFX in particular. It’s a great pity because these are the most remarkable elements by far. Shvets’ technical designs are credibly functional and include the space station rendered as a rotating wheel, a concept first proposed by Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903. It’s even been reported that director Stanley Kubrick took some inspiration from Shvets’ drawings when planning elements of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Ilyushin and Semyannikov bring these designs to life with some fine miniatures and optical compositions. One particular shot of Mars rising behind the astronauts on the asteroid where they are eventually marooned is particularly striking.

One person who took serious note of the SFX work was cost-conscious producer Roger Corman. Purchasing the American film rights, he handed the movie to one of his young filmmakers to create a version for homegrown audiences. The opening 7 minutes were cut (everything involving the daydreaming journalist), and new exposition was added. The competing Mars expeditions now represented ‘North Hemis’ and ‘South Hemis’, two new superpowers that had formed in the aftermath of the Atomic War of 1997. All the characters were dubbed into English, and the emphasis of Tonunts’ dialogue was changed to paint him as more of a traditional villain.

The only new footage was an insert of a clipboard which misidentified mission controller Popova as working for the wrong superpower and a brief sequence featuring some goofy monsters at the end. The creatures were included at Corman’s insistence. When interviewed for Corman’s biography ‘How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime’, the young filmmaker in question acknowledged that the monsters were supposed to be male and female. However, some commentators have pointed out their more specific resemblance to genitalia. It’s there if you look for it, although whether it was intentional is open to question. If you’re thinking of tracking down the film for that specific reason, go ahead, but you’ll likely find it a bit of an anti-climax (pun intended). The results hit theatres under the somewhat misleading title of ‘Battle Beyond the Sun’.

The young filmmaker responsible was Francis Ford Coppola, then at the very start of his glittering career. Interviewed for the book on Corman, Coppola doubted that he even saw the finished film, which is plausible considering the producer already had him shooting additional exteriors for ‘The Terror’ (1963) and working as dialogue supervisor on ‘The Haunted Palace’ (1963) around the same time. It is inferior to the Soviet original, thanks to the clunky opening exposition and the monster scene, but it’s not a complete hatchet job. The dubbing and voice acting are adequate, and there’s little variation from the basic plot. There’s no sign that it was supervised by the director who would go on to create some of the most highly-regarded films of the 20th Century, though.

Sadly, projects like ‘The Godfather’ (1972) and ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) were still far off when he received his first full directorial credit a year later. This was for ‘The Bellboy and the Playgirls’ (1962), a re-edit of black and white German sex-comedy ‘The Sin Began with Eva’ (1958). Coppola was hired to shoot additional colour scenes with Playboy Playmate June ‘The Bosom’ Wilkinson and friends. Yes, it’s just as terrible and quaint as it sounds, but we all have to start somewhere.

A relatively dry tale of space exploration, notably mainly for its technical aspects and the work of its SFX team.


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