‘I’ll build your temples on all the five continents and crown your images with grapes.’
The authorities investigate when a learned Professor disappears under mysterious circumstances. His plans for a heat ray have also vanished, taken by a brilliant engineer who plans to build the device and become master of the world…
Curious Soviet science-fiction piece that plays like an amalgamation of various ideas and influences, none of which resolve into a coherent end result. Based on a 1926 novel by Aleksey Tolstoy called ‘The Garin Death Ray’, this black and white picture has elements of an espionage drama, a Hollywood movie serial, a warning about the evils of capitalism and a rip-roaring juvenile adventure tale. All delivered in a style which echoes silent filmmaking and the German expressionist cinema on the 1920s. It’s a mixture with amazing possibilities, that’s for sure.
The film opens with the story already in motion. Engineer Garin (Evgeniy Evstigneev) has already got his hands on the designs of his colleague Professor Mantsev (Nikolai Bubnov) and has been working to fashion them into a usable prototype in a remote location. Already on his trail is government agent Shelga (Vsevolod Safonov) but, by the time he arrives, it’s too late. Garin and his invention are in the wind, on their way to Paris where he hooks up with millionaire Rolling (Mikhail Astangov) and his beautiful mistress Zoya (Natalya Klimova). Unfortunately, this is a weak opening. Despite the luminous photography by Aleksandr Rybin and excellent shot composition by director Aleksandr Gintsburg (an ex-cinematographer himself), the results are muddled and tedious. None of the characters are clearly established, and there is an over-abundance of anonymous figures with vague alliances and motivations that orbit the main cast to little purpose.
This confusion may have been down to the film’s slightly troubled production history. Tolstoy’s novel had gained great popularity amongst young teenage boys, and they were the film’s original target audience. However, authorities insisted on a more serious approach to the material after two Soviet scientists won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1964 for their pioneering work on lasers.
It’s unclear how much tampering may have been involved, but it’s undeniable that once Evstigneev holds the world to ransom with his deadly device that the film switches gears and morphs into a far different beast. From here on we’re given a faintly satiric, outlandish Bond science-fiction romp, albeit a little more thoughtful than most. Evstigneev’s motivations aren’t merely a lust for power or madness, but a conviction that the world will be better off under his leadership. His campaign begins when he fires the Hyperboloid from the ruins of a hillside tower and destroys the factories of one of Astangov’s rivals, although the money man is quickly reduced to a mere bystander in his plans. The film’s final third is set on a remote island where Evstigneev builds his lair; a massive installation where he mines for the Olivine Layer (a mixture of Mercury and Gold) which he plans to use to destabilise the world’s economy. All protected by the Hyperboloid in its own tower.
And it’s here where the technical aspects of the production score. The production design and use of real interiors are excellent, and the model work in the climactic scenes where the ray is used against a fleet of battleships is top-notch for its time. But the most impressive scene is when Evstigneev descends into the Earth in a cylindrical metal craft to complete a geological survey.
Setting the film back in the 1920s is another point in its favour as this allows Gintsburg to create some memorable visuals including a recreation of the Parisian cafe culture, a political rally (probably the film’s most satiric moment) and an escape by dirigible. The performances are also fine. Evstigneev, a respected stage actor, provides a charismatic lead and Kilmova is appropriately cool and detached as his femme fatale paramour. The heroes are a little bland, but they don’t have so much to get their teeth into.
Sadly, a lot of these good qualities are torpedoed by the uncertain tone and seemingly pointless digressions. There’s an entire subplot about Bubnov, whose gone into hiding in Siberia after designing the Hyperboloid. Evstigneev is desperate to track him down for some reason, but we never really find out why. There’s also the presence of young boy Ivan, who has a map of Bubnov’s location tattooed on his back just as inexplicably. Probably, his presence was more clearly explained in the film’s original conception. Indeed, the choppy nature of the final results does suggest reshoots and heavy editing may have been involved.
A project with some very enjoyable and accomplished aspects that would look wonderful compiled into a trailer, but falls well short as the finished article.