Moscow-Cassiopeia (1974)

Moscow Cassiopeia (1974)‘Why is Ira putting porridge into my shorts?’

Mysterious radio signals are detected emanating from the constellation of Cassiopeia. The Russian authorities decide to mount a manned expedition to investigate and adopt the science project of a 15 year-old genius as their mission plan. As it’s a 52-year round trip, they decide to send children instead of adults, and the budding Einstein is chosen to captain the ship while some of his classmates are recruited as crew.

Mention Russian Science Fiction films of the 1970s and you immediately think of the works of director Andrei Tarkovosky, who raised the bar for serious, philosophical work in the genre with the iconic movies ‘Solaris’ (1972) and ‘Stalker’ (1979). This project, however, takes the total opposite of such an approach, being a lightweight, vaguely comic, family orientated vehicle targeting adolescents as its intended audience. Yes, it’s ‘Tweens in Space’ and it’s exactly as hideous and tiresome as that sounds.

Our main man is teenage egghead Victor Sereda (Misha Yershov) whose brilliant ideas for a ‘annihilator relativistic nuclear starship’ and a deep space expedition to investigate the source of the radio signals impress the adults at his class presentation so much that they immediately start making it happen. I guess it’s lucky that they were the leaders of Russia’s space program, rather than the teachers you might normally have expected to attend. Also lurking in the wings as a facilitator is the mysterious lnnokently Smoktunovskiy, whose identity is never established and whose presence no-one ever questions.

Once our young crew are on their way, the main thrust of the drama centres on an anonymous, romantic note that was passed in class during Yershov’s original demonstration! Who was the author? Could it be Yershov’s dream girl (Olga Bityukova), or might it be nerdy intellectual Nadezhda Ovcharva? Perhaps it was even perky Irina Panfyorova, although she seems to have thing for his best mate Aleksandr Grigoryev instead. Yes, it’s the sort of hardcore science fiction speculation that Stanley Kubrick could only have dreamed of! Unfortunately for Yershov, he’s distracted from this riveting mystery when it turns out that troublesome classmate Lobanov (Vladimir Basov Ml) has stowed away on the spaceship. And what a jolly japester he turns out to be; pushing every random button that he can see, launching himself into space through the waste disposal system by mistake and then sitting on the main control panel and sending them all into hyperspace, something previously thought impossible! How I laughed at his antics.

Moscow Cassiopeia (1974)

Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1974…

Technically, the film is acceptable with the model work and other SFX proficent, if unimaginative. There’s also a holo-deck on board the ship for recreational purposes, a good 13 years before the crew of the Enterprise got one on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’ On the debit side, it only seems to consist of a stretch of empty lakeshore.

The main problem with the film is that there simply aren’t enough laughs for a comedy or thrills for an adventure or action movie. Instead, we’re left to sink in the mire of Yershov’s overactive hormones and other even less than riveting romantic complications. In fact, the plot develops in such an unconvincing, infantile fashion that I fully expected Yershov to wake up at the climax and discover that it was all a dream (groan!) Instead, the film ends in the middle of the ‘action’ with ship and crew approaching their destination. Why? Because there’s a sequel (double groan!) It’s called ‘Teens in the Universe’ (1975) and it came out a year later, although it was undoubtedly shot ’back to back’ with this effort.

A real chore to get through.

The Andromeda Nebula (1967)

The Andromeda Nebula (1967)‘Not only heard, but also saw in the last news, the solemn deed of conveyance of the matters.’

An exploratory interplanetary mission is caught in the attraction of an ‘Iron Star’ and has insufficient fuel to effect an escape, leaving the astronauts stranded. Back on Earth, senior scientists and public officials wait for news of the mission.

Slow paced and talky Russian science fiction based on a novel by Ivan Efremov, who also adapted his work for the screen here. The results are curious, although a little on the dull side. For a start, the audience is thrown straight into the story, with no context for the future society we see portrayed, or even a basic explanation of what is going on. Although this is quite refreshing in a time when films tend to provide over-exposition as a standard, it does mean that some incidents are rather baffling. What is ‘The Ring’ they keep talking about? What are those signals coming from Satellite 57, and why did they consist of lots of dancing girls shown in brightly coloured silhouettes? Search me.

The main thrust of the story concerns our interplanetary pioneers. They’re rather a glum bunch, especially when they find out that capture by the ‘Iron Star’ probably means hanging around 25 years for a rescue mission to arrive from Earth. Unfortunately, the lack of any kind of setup to the action doesn’t assist with audience investment in their problems.

However, we do get an emotional focus with pretty, young astro-navigator Tatyana Voloshina and her love for crusty commander Nikolai Kryukov. He doesn’t seem to reciprocate, but we suspect he’s weakening. The discovery of a derelict spaceship on a nearby planet offers hope, but the rock isn’t unoccupied, and the residents are not particularly friendly. Back on Earth, we get some underdeveloped romantic complications concerning a couple of the officials (Sergei Stolyarov and Vija Artmane), and some bloke who wants to ‘collapse time.’

The Andromeda Nebula (1967)

Even in the future,  the opening ceremony of the Olympics was still boring…

One of the main issues with the film is that the two disparate halves never come together. The film runs less than 80 minutes, but several important threads of the plot are left dangling after the final credits. The explanation for all this is quite simple. This was the first of an intended series of films based on Efremov’s work, but the rest were never made after its poor reception. It’s a pity, because it would have been interesting to see how the story was going to develop. Seeking out the novel is probably the only way to get any closure.

There are some pleasing aspects, nevertheless. The difficulties caused by the immense distances involved in interstellar travel are a recurrent theme, and that’s unusual. Obviously, it’s usually ignored in fiction because of the dramatic problems it creates. There are also some halfway decent visuals and practical effects, and the interior of the spacecraft is fairly credible for a change, even if it does have a pool!

As a whole, the film is not particularly satisfying, but it feels wrong to regard it too harshly. That would be like judging a book after only reading the first half.

Amphibian Man (1962)

Amphibian Man (1962)‘To create an underwater republic is not that easy, my dear friend.’

A scientist working on a remote coast has created a man who can live both in water and on land and has raised him as a son. Unfortunate complications ensue when his protégé begins to interact with the human world, and finds that it’s not the paradise he believed it to be.

Russian Science Fiction-Romance that begins by laying on the charm before taking a surprisingly serious turn late on. The innocence and simplicity of the early scenes are quite engaging as poor, but pretty, heroine Anastasiya Vertinskava goes about her business in a gorgeous picture postcard seaside town on the Baltic. Unfortunately, her idyllic life is compromised by local rascal Don Pedro who is using his considerable influence to pressure her father into giving her up to a loveless marriage. Things are looking bleak until she meets a mysterious, handsome stranger, and they fall in love. Complications ensure when it transpires that he’s part-man, part-fish.

This is a pleasingly old fashioned picture, a fairytale really, but given a modern, scientific twist. The dreamy atmosphere is enhanced by the film’s striking locations, beautifully captured by the crystal clear cinematography of Eduard Rozovsky. Technically, the film is excellent in all its aspects; both the exterior and interior of the scientist’s clifftop laboratory are a fine achievement in production design. The players are appealing too, particularly young leads Vertinskava and fish-boy Vladimir Korenev.

Amphibian Man (1962)

‘Cod & Chips twice, and have you got any of those little onion rings?

Where the film falls down a little is in the story development. Sure, there’s plenty of conflict with the villain, and a dark finish that contrasts well with the lighter earlier scenes. However, there is a little too much of our mooning lovebirds, and stronger supporting characters would have helped. There’s also not a whole lot that’s original about the proceedings. For instance, when Korenev visits the town for the first time, his trials are effectively rendered, but they are somewhat obvious and predictable.

A little more attention here and there and this film might have gained quite a reputation. As it is, it’s still a strong little picture, it just fails to take that final step to greatness.

Cosmic Voyage/Space Voyage (1936)

Cosmic_Voyage:Space_Voyage_(1936)‘My old man is flying to the moon. The temperature is -270 degrees but he’s forgotten his warm boots!’

The elderly scientist in charge of a rocket project dreams of going into space. Unfortunately, colleagues aren’t convinced that men can survive such a journey and forbid him to go, insisting on further tests. In the end, he launches the rocket anyway, circumstances dictating that he is accompanied by a female colleague and his grandson.

This Soviet silent film shows a surprisingly advanced understanding of the possible difficulties of space exploration than many films produced in subsequent years. The rocket is launched via tracks ascending the side of a hill (the method also favoured in ‘When Worlds Collide’ (1951)) and the cosmonauts enter vertical tubes filled with liquid to counteract the g-force. They also experience weightlessness in flight via some not-too visible wire work. Two decades later some U.S. filmmakers still hadn’t got a handle on that; witness the ‘lawn chairs’ on the spacecraft flight deck in the gloriously stupid ‘Cat Women of the Moon’ (1954).

The crew is somewhat less than credible, though. The old man does have some health issues with the strains of the flight – and no wonder at his age! – but it’s the presence of the brainbox grandson that really stands out like a sore thumb. Indeed, given that he saves the day with a mechanical catapult, is seems likely that the film was aimed at a younger audience, and the ‘factual’ approach may have been intended as educational.

On the credit side, the actors are surprisingly natural, but their actions with a bunch of flowers in the first half are a bit of a puzzle. The model work is variable, but rather good on the initial reveal of the spaceship, aided by some excellent camera movement. Unfortunately, when in flight things are somewhat less convincing with the ship becoming a fizzy ‘Flash Gordon’ (1936) firework.

Cosmic_Voyage:Space_Voyage_(1936)_2

‘Now, which way is it to the train station?’

Our brave trio eventually make a somewhat disastrous landing on the moon, and it’s these sequences which saw the film banned for many years in its home country. The Soviet filmmakers give us a much more mountainous moonscape than the Americans did in NASA’s ‘Moon Landing’ (1969), but it was the crag hopping in spacesuits that upset the officials of the party. Not realistic, apparently. To be sure, the animation of those sequences is a little crude, but it seems a bit of a harsh decision!

In order to obtain a level of realism for the picture, director Vasili Zhuravlov consulted with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the renowned rocket engineer, whose ground breaking work over the previous half century has led him to be known as the ‘father of aeronautics.’ He died shortly after the film was completed.

Like many films of the early science fiction era, this isn’t particularly entertaining for a modern audience, but there’s enough going on to make it one of the more interesting, and credible, examples.

 

Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms) (1962)

Planeta_Bur_(1962)‘According to quotes from the Smith corporation, the cost of building a highway to the ‘Sirius’ is 37 million dollars’

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).

Planeta_Bur_(1962)

The robot had lost his head completely.

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.

Doroga K Zvezdam (Road To The Stars) (1958)

Road_To_The_Stars_(1958)‘Man has done his work, now the machines will do the rest.’

57 minute Russian semi-documentary focusing on the history of aeronautics and rocketry, and then the development of space exploration in the future.

This unusual film kicks off in an educational vein spending a good 20 minutes in the company of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (Georgi Solovyov), a schoolteacher whose dreams of powered rockets find little favour with the scientific community. His profession is actually a gift for director Pavel Klushantsev, as it allows Solovyov to explain basic theories of propulsion and rocketry to his students. Tsiolkovsky is now generally regarded as one of the founding fathers of aeronautics, and he was the man who first proposed the use of a multi-stage rocket to escape the Earth’s atmosphere. Obviously, this all sounds very patriotic and flag waving, but the contributions of other countries is acknowledged, although inevitably we focus mostly on Soviet developments.

The second half of the film steps into the field of speculation and science fiction, although everything is presented in the same factual, documentary style. We get the first manned space shot with three brave cosmonauts, although the limited resources shown at Mission Control are not too accurate! Construction of a space station in orbit follows, and it bears more than a passing resemblance to the wheel design made famous in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Here, the visual effects team of art director V Shelkov and cinematographers A Lavrentyev and A M Romanenko deliver some pretty effective miniatures, and the images are impressive for the era when the film was made.

Road_To_The_Stars_(1958)

Beat that, NASA!

There are dozens of people living on the station we are told; observing the heavens from outside the Earth’s atmosphere, growing plants, providing an ‘early warning system’ for extreme weather conditions on the planet below, and even ‘An Iceberg Service.’ One woman has brought her cat along, and the next stage of development wlll see mining operations on the lunar surface.

This is all pretty reasonable, and solid speculation, with little of the extravagances of similar projects in Hollywood. Obviously, it’s a little disappointing that over half a century later, mankind has failed to catch up with what must be acknowledged are fairly modest ambitions in the science fiction arena.

Tainstvennyy Ostrov (Mysterious Island) (1941)

Tainstvennyy ostrov (1941)Twelve years had passed since the disastrous M.G.M version…

A group of civil war soldiers escape from a besieged town in a balloon, but a storm blows it out over the ocean and wrecks it on a strange island. The survivors try to adapt to their new surroundings, helped by an unseen presence that seems to have their best interests at heart.

Technically limited but remarkably faithful take on the Jules Verne novel, most successfully filmed in 1961 with the aid of some giant monster magic by Ray Harryhausen. There are no giant creatures here, of course, but it is notable for having Russian actors playing Americans, and for the fact that it resists the addition of Venusians, refugees from Atlantis, undersea dragons, and all the bizarre elements that other filmmakers have brought to the story over the years.

Unfortunately, without all that, we’re left with a very talky picture indeed, enlivened only by the appearance of pirates and an ape manservant. It’s always a problem when adapting Verne; his novels often being stuffed with facts but rather light on story development. The film was shot on the shores of the Black Sea and the locations do supply visual interest, but with a rather dull bunch of protagonists, this seems a lot longer than the fairly brief 75 minute running time.

Predictably, the most memorable sequences come at the climax of the story with the appearance of the Nautilus and respected Soviet actor Nikolai Komissarov as Nemo. But the most notable name attached to the project is actually composer Nikita Bogoslovsky. This was an early score in an international career that included 8 symphonies, 17 operattas and over 100 other film and theatre credits. Although performances of his works were banned during the Stalin area, in later life he received many prestigious awards from the Soviet State.

Tainstvennyy_ostrov_(1941)_2

A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

The most unusual presence in the production is black American actor Robert Ross. He had settled in the Soviet Union a couple of decades before, shortly after the people’s revolution. According to available sources, this was his only film role and he worked mostly as an unofficial ambassador for black U.S citizens who wished to relocate in the new Russia. In later years he was a well respected lecturer on American affairs in Moscow.

As a work of cinema, this is strictly unremarkable material, a flat and uninspired exercise, which should be watched for curiosity value alone. After all, it’s not often that you see Russian actors playing Americans in a story written by a Frenchman.