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.

Aelita/Aelita, the Queen of Mars/Аэлита (1924)

‘Touch my lips with your lips as those Earth people did.’

A strange radio message is received around the world, and a young Soviet engineer believes it has been sent from Mars. He begins working on blueprints for a spaceship, but, at the same time, his young wife falls under the influence of a small-time crook…

Landmark silent science-fiction feature from the Soviet Union, directed by Yakov Protazanov. This almost two-hour epic was one of the first feature-length interplanetary adventures in cinema history and was loosely adapted from the popular novel by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy.

The world is astounded by the receipt of a mysterious radio message. Scientists tend to dismiss it, but workaholic Russian engineer Los (Nikolai Tseretelli) believes it may have come from Mars. The continuing upheaval of the Civil War means a constant influx of refugees into Moscow, and his young wife, Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), works at the local checkpoint to help them find work and get relocated.

Among the dispossessed are Viktor Ehrlich (Pavel Pol) and his wife Yelena (N. Tretyakova), who pose as brother and sister so Tretyakova can resume her relationship with Evguieni Spiridinov (Tseretelli playing a dual role). Pol gets a job at the local ration office and is billeted at the home of the young engineer and his wife. Pol begins a campaign to seduce the neglected Kuindzhi, but Tseretelli starts to suspect his wife of being unfaithful. Eventually, he shoots her in a moment of madness and flees.

Disguising himself as Spiridinov, who has left the country, Tseretelli builds the spaceship and recruits demobbed soldier Gusev (Nikolay Batalov) as a travelling companion. Despite having just married Nurse Masha (Vera Orlova), he’s bored with civilian life and longs for adventure. Joined by the would-be detective and full-time stowaway Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky), they reach the red planet. Ruler Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) wants the Earthmen put to death at once. However, honorary Queen Aelita (Yuliya Solntseva) has fallen in love with Tseretelli and leads the Martian workers in a revolt against Eggert’s government.

Details of the creative process behind this film remain elusive after a century, but it’s known that director Protazanov and novelist Tolstoy were acquainted. However, writers Fyodor Otsep and Aleksei Fajko are credited with the screenplay, which isn’t surprising when you realise that Protazanov’s film radically differs from the source material. When Tseretelli recruits soldier Batalov to join him on his interstellar journey, barely a quarter of the film remains. In the book, the event occurs in one of the earliest chapters.

The film was a major release from the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio. The overhaul of the original story may have been because audiences were largely unfamiliar with science fiction. Yes, crowds had been amused and entertained by the lunar exploits of early filmmakers like Georges Méliès. However, this project was a very different proposition; a serious, two-hour feature, not a 20-minute novelty with planets played by bathing beauties. There’s also the strong indication in the final product that Protazanov was far more interested in telling a story about young people and the rebuilding of his country than mucking about with spaceships and such foolishness.

That is not to say that the Martian aspect is a throwaway, far from it, and it’s these scenes for which the film is remembered today rather than its efforts as social realism. The unique costumes were the creation of painter Alexandra Exter, and the set design was the work of a team led by Viktor Simov. The exterior of the Martian city is restricted to some brief and unconvincing model shots, but it’s inside where things get interesting. Although there’s no explicit acknowledgement that the Martians live underground, their living space is a series of huge, hollow caverns dotted here and there with strange fragments of their alien technology.

Despite also owning a hand-held telescope(!), Queen Solntseva views the Earth from the Tower of Radiant Energy. Here, street scenes are available on command via a device that resembles a mountain of large glass triangles, assembled so loosely they can be shattered with a gentle push. It might not be a very sensible design, but it is striking and stylish. Solntseva also wears some outstandingly impractical headpieces and a dress which seems to suggest that she might have three breasts. Of course, the audience never gets to find out if that’s true, but it does make the presence of the three-breasted prostitute in ‘Total Recall’ (1990) seem like more than just a coincidence!

It’s certainly possible that the film also influenced Fritz Lang when he made his science fiction classic ‘Metropolis’ (1927). Protazanov’s film was shown as part of the 1925 ‘World’s Fair’ exhibition in Paris during October of that year, so the German director may have had the opportunity to see it. The Martian workers get relatively little screentime, but we do see them queuing mechanically for immersion in a deep freeze, where they are piled up like showroom dummies. When they finally revolt, Solntseva is in the thick of the fighting, urging them on. Like Robot Maria in a similar scene in ‘Metropolis’ (1927), her motives are hardly above reproach.

The film’s most obvious influence in science fiction cinema, though, is with the designs of Simov and Exter, which have resurfaced countless types in variations over the years. Aelita’s wardrobe has informed the fashion choices of many an alien potentate, such as Laurie Mitchell in ‘Queen of Outer Space’ (1958), and the aesthetic echoes down the corridors of Ming’s palace in the original ‘Flash Gordon’ (1936) serial, among many others. Simov was a follower of constructivism, an art movement founded in 1915 by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko. This favoured a seemingly contradictory combination of the industrial and the abstract, leading to devices that may have looked impractical but also demonstrated an apparent function. Certainly, the interior of Tseretelli’s rocket looks very functional indeed, even if it does resemble a factory boiler room, and casts some doubt on the engineer’s understanding of the relationship between weight and escape velocity.

The film was a big domestic hit in Russia, so much so that it became briefly fashionable to name babies after the title character. However, it fell out of favour later on with Soviet authorities and went unseen for many years. When viewed today, it’s certainly a mixed bag. The science-fiction plays second fiddle to Protazanov’s social realism for the most part, and the resolution will probably provoke a head shake and an eye roll or two. It’s certainly well made, and the performances are appealing, particularly Kuindzhi as the neglected wife. However, it’s slow in places, and the relegation of the main content novel to little more than a plot device is a little frustrating. The implied message that dreams can be dangerous and should be sacrificed in favour of more practical matters is a little depressing, too, although Protazanov doesn’t push it too hard.

It’s interesting to consider that Protazanov may have opted to present this story rather than that of the novel for a reason other than the audience’s unfamiliarity with science fiction. To be clear, the film is radically different from Tolstoy’s original story. The drama involving Tseretelli’s marriage is the main plot, but it was a creation of the filmmakers. In the book, Engineer Los is a far older character, mourning a wife who is long dead. He leaves on his interstellar journey simply because there’s nothing to keep him on Earth, and almost the entire story takes place on the Red Planet. Similarly, the Martians have no idea the Earthmen are coming, and Aelita is far from the manipulative temptress of Protazanov’s vision.

Budgetary constraints were probably a factor in these changes, but it also could have been that the novel’s tone was deemed unsuitable. The author was born in 1883 to the wife of Count Nikolay Alexandrovich Tolstoy, a distant relative of the famous writer of ‘War and Peace’. However, there was some doubt as to the legitimacy of the baby’s parentage, and it was only as a young man that he took the name Tolstoy and began to style himself as a Count. Given that, it’s hardly surprising that he opposed the overthrow of the aristocracy during the revolution and fled overseas, eventually landing in Paris.

During his exile, he enjoyed success as a playwright and author, his output including the historical novel ‘The Road to Calvary’, which provoked hostility back home. By 1923, the year that he wrote ‘Aelita’, he seems to have become reconciled to the new order as he returned to Russia. He avoided persecution from the Stalin regime and prospered, allegedly due to a considerable personal fortune. This personal history and beliefs likely informed his venture into science fiction.

Tolstoy depicts the Martian civilisation as one with a colourful and glorious past but now in a sad, slow decline. Even their great, thriving city lies on the outskirts of an even greater metropolis, now in ruins. Aelita and Los talk of love in the shadows of old, crumbling statues, and the farmlands are slowly turning to desert and dust. There’s a quality of sad, wistful nostalgia permeating everything, and even the worker’s revolution crashes in flames and defeat. It’s not a lost science fiction classic by any means, but it does have a quality all its own, and Tolstoy paints a vivid picture with some striking prose. But, crucially, it was not a story likely to appeal to the audience or the regime of a country in the process of rebuilding and looking toward a glorious future.

The role of Aelita was the first of importance in the career of actress Solntseva. Subsequently, she married Ukrainian director Alexandre Dovzhenko and starred for him in the award-winning ‘Earth/Zemlya’ (1930). The couple went on to co-direct the biopic ‘Shchors’ (1939) and made several documentaries together. When he died at the start of shooting ‘Poem of the Sea/Poema o More’ (1959), she took over and began a successful career as a director in her own right. ‘The Flaming Years/Povest plamennykh let’ (1961) from a script by her late husband won two awards at Cannes, and she served on the Festival’s jury 14 years later.

This is an important film in the history of science-fiction cinema. However, modern viewers could be forgiven for feeling a little underwhelmed.

I Was a Satellite of the Sun/Ya byl sputnikom solntsa (1959)

‘We know the opinion of the anti-meteorite group, and we can’t disregard it.’

After landing on the moon in 1959, the Soviets have established a timetable of regular flights. However, when they try to push out further into space, their experimental craft encounter increased cosmic radiation and inexplicable communication breakdowns…

Sombre Soviet speculative ‘fantastic cine-action’ focuses on humanity’s first steps into the cosmos after successfully reaching the moon. Viktor Morgenstern directs this documentary-style drama, featuring miniature and animation FX.

It’s never a good idea to read other people’s mail. When nosy teenager Andrey (Anatoliy Shamshurin) opens a telegram sent between his parents, it leads him to the unlocked safe in his father’s study. The contents seem harmless enough, with the only items of interest being a set of videophone tapes shot by astronaut Igor Petrovich Kalinin (Vladimir Yemelyanov) on his last flight. Given that father Sergey Ivanovich (Georgiy Shamshurin) is a senior member of the space program, it doesn’t seem too remarkable that he should be in possession of such material. Still, Shamshurin acts strangely when he comes home and finds his son watching them.

Years pass and the adult Andrey (Pavel Makhotin) has followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming one of the leading scientists of the space program. However, all is not well. Missions sent to the region around the sun are losing contact with mission control, and their animal astronauts are succumbing to the effects of cosmic radiation. It’s then the elder Shamshurin drops his bombshell. Astronaut Yemelyanov was Makhotin’s father and died trying to reach his installer laboratory and prove his largely discredited theory regarding ‘dead zones’ in space that block radio waves.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on 4th October 1957, it was a significant scientific breakthrough and a global publicity coup of almost unparalleled importance for the nation. So it was little wonder that a surge of optimism and faith in scientific ingenuity should be reflected in the work of some of its filmmakers. Censorship had also relaxed somewhat with Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. He’d banned such ‘frivolous’ works as ‘The New Moscow/Novaya Moskva’ (1938), a fluffy romcom with a slight science-fiction element, even though it included a song praising him by name! By the late 1950s, such flights of fancy were far more acceptable, although subjects were always focused on the scientific glories of the Soviet Union to come. The swift conquest of space seemed like an inevitability.

This film presents what could be viewed today as almost an alternative world history. America and the rest of the world don’t even get a look in as the Soviets land on the moon ten years early, launch unmanned laboratories into space and establish a ring of satellites around the earth that predict the weather, revolutionise global communications and beam down Solar Energy direct from the sun (well, two out of three ain’t bad.) Further exploration proves problematic, though, and it’s then that everyone gets together around the big table to try and sort it out, much as Japanese scientists and military types debate how to tackle Godzilla or one of his many monster chums. Of course, the brilliance of Soviet science triumphs in the end.

The human angle to the tale is provided by Makhotin, the young egghead with such a big brain that he couldn’t work out that Yemelyanov was his real father despite it being self-evident in the first ten minutes of the film. This revelation does fuel his determination to fly his father’s last mission again, even if it’s stretching credibility that a qualified pilot wouldn’t be sent in his place. Fortunately, the decision rests entirely with Shamshurin, so it’s ok. However, as the entire story is told in a flashback by Makhotin after his safe return, the climactic action is robbed of any suspense or tension.

Along the way, there are some decent miniature spaceships, multiple references to pesky meteorites (space in the 1950s was infested with them) and the pleasing sight of women at the consoles in mission control. There’s also an effort to convey the immensity of space, but the desolate planetary vistas are presented via the medium of animation, which makes it look like an educational information film. Still, it is always interesting to contrast the more realistic, sober science fiction coming out of Soviet Russia with its Hollywood equivalents. This example is far more allied to efforts such as ‘On the Threshold of Space’ (1956) or Richard Carlson’s ‘Riders to the Stars’ (1954) than the usual American diet of alien vegetable men, flying saucers, and giant, radioactive monsters.

Unfortunately, what’s missing here is any real human drama. The cast is stoic, and the characters resolutely anonymous, as if director Morgenstern was afraid that any random expression of human emotion would undermine the realism of his story. What remains interesting is that unbridled optimism, showcasing a future where space conquest was just around the corner. The feel is reminiscent of the later sequences of Pavel Klushantsev’s fascinating docu-drama ‘Doroga K Zvezdam/Road To The Stars’ (1958), which are set in a recognisable, but somewhat utopian future.

Morgenstern is credited with only one other film, ‘Prior to the Leap Into Space’ (1961), but, given the almost total absence of information and the same credited writers, Vladimir Kapitanovsky and Vladimir Shreiberg, it may simply be a reissue or a re-edited version of this film. Makhotin made his debut here and subsequently carved out a long career in Soviet cinema and television, mostly playing military officers and authority figures in supporting roles. One of the few projects to reach the West was the science-fiction horror ‘Day of Wrath/Den gneva’ (1985) which featured a mad geneticist creating a race of bear-like creatures that go on the rampage near an isolated village.

An interesting time capsule but offering precious little in the way of entertainment. Only for those determined to track down every Soviet science-fiction movie ever made.

Miss Mend/The Adventures of the Three Reporters/Мисс Менд (1926)

‘A notary may die, but his wallet is immortal.’

A typist at a factory becomes involved with journalists investigating the mystery surrounding the death of her employer. The secret criminal group responsible are developing bacteriological and chemical weapons and is planning to test them on a foreign country…

Early Soviet silent serial with a science-fiction twist, released initially in three feature-length chapters. Their combined running time exceeds four hours, with the chapters titled ‘Dead Man’s Letter’, ‘Double Crime’ and ‘Death By Radio’.

Trouble is brewing at Rockefeller’s Cork Factory in Littletown, USA. When the workers strike, the police intervene with a heavy hand, which doesn’t sit well with feisty office typist Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan). She intervenes to try and broker peace, and her activities bring her to the attention of the Littletown Herald’s ace reporter, Barnet (Boris Barnet) and his photographer Fogel: Fogel (Vladimir Fogel). But when a riot breaks out, Glan is saved by a mysterious young man who pretends to be an engineer. In reality, he’s Arthur (Ivan Koval-Samborsky), the son of the factory’s owner, Gordon Stern (Mikhail Rozen-Sanin). This act of chivalry doesn’t please Glan’s co-worker and not-so-secret admirer, Tom Hopkins (Igor Ilyinsky).

Meanwhile, while returning from a trip abroad, Rozen-Sanin is murdered by ‘The Organisation’, a secret criminal conspiracy who have their eyes on his massive fortune. The tycoon was betrayed by his wife, Elizabeth (Natalya Rozenel), who has fallen in love with the cabal’s chairman, Chiche (Sergey Komarov). After writing a phoney will, the late magnate’s funds are in their hands. Glan plans to contest the will as she is looking after a five-year-old child, who is the result of her late sister’s affair with the departed tycoon. The journalists join forces with Ilyinsky to protect her interests and uncover the deadly machinations of Komarov and his gang.

This silent epic boasts a total running time of over four hours and was made at a time when cinema was exploding in popularity across the Soviet Union. The first movie theatre opened in Moscow in 1921, and just two years later, there were almost a hundred. The government quickly recognised the possibilities of the new medium, and all film production companies were collected under the auspices of the State Committee for Cinematography by 1924. Still, filmmakers do not seem to have been significantly hampered by state interference initially, not until Sergei Eisenstein was forced to cut sequences from ‘October/Oktyabr’ (1928) at the behest of the ‘movie-obsessed’ Josef Stalin.

In the years prior, presenting less ideologically focused films with an emphasis on crowd-pleasing entertainment was still acceptable. Co-directors Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep, who also scripted along with Vasili Sakhnovsky, chose to follow that path, delivering a product whose content would be easily recognisable to Western audiences of the period. There may be fewer daring escapes, chases and death-defying cliffhangers than their Hollywood counterparts, but then the plot does drift and meander into side stories on several occasions. Given its multiple protagonists and considerable length, this is perhaps inevitable, but it results in some elements almost entirely tangential to the main story. The most obvious example is the time we spend on Fogel living with street kids in Leningrad, which s a curious inclusion, given the implicit criticism of Russian society this suggests.

The prevailing political climate does make the entire enterprise seem a little odd. Here, we have American heroes, albeit played by Russian actors, travelling to the Soviet Union to save the day. Of course, the Russian authorities are never portrayed as less than capable of dealing with Komarov and his grand design, but arguably, the American characters take the lead. The most intriguing aspect of this unusual setup is that it allows the Russian filmmakers to depict their fictionalised version of America. There are only a few missteps in their vision, too, the most obvious being the Cork Factory apparently being owned by a misspelt Nelson Rockefeller and the local forces of law and order operating out of a ‘Police Office.’ There’s a scene of club patrons rocking out to the stomping sounds of the Pasadena Jazz Band, but if the intention was to show Western degenerates at play, to modern eyes, it looks like a pretty standard night out at your local. Of course, the underlying message is that capitalism is evil and the wealthy aren’t to be trusted, but it’s always secondary to the action and the entertainment factor.

Over such a long running time, events get repetitive and lack focus on occasion, but technically the film has some notable points. The laboratory set is particularly striking, with its bare, clinical white walls and steep, open staircases. The gas masks worn by the scientists also have a pleasing plague mask/steampunk vibe, and it all leads to one of the production’s most memorable scenes. Suddenly, Komarov decides to test the plague germs’ efficacy by infecting his scientific team, who prove they were good at their job by dropping dead. Why Supervillains think it’s good employment policy to slaughter their underlings arbitrarily is almost as puzzling as why they explain their secret plan to the helpless hero before trying to kill him in some ridiculous and over-elaborate way. Komarov then decamps for the Soviet Union to unleash the plague, which, considering the risks involved, was a job probably best left to the hired help (if he hadn’t killed some of them).

There are some pleasing set pieces and stunts, including Barnet apparently launching himself out of a second-floor window into a snowbank and a car getting pulverised by the front of a speeding locomotive. A woman is also thrown bodily into the harbour from a high quayside. It was probably a double for Glan rather than the actress herself, but clearly, it’s a real person, and it was quite a long way down. There’s also a curious follow-up to this stunt where Barnet blackens himself with soot and walks down a city street wearing just a collar and tie (no shirt), a straw boater and a towel around his waist. Yes, he’s just given his regular clothing to Glan after she’s almost drowned, but his choice of attire is still quite baffling. Is he supposed to be an Eastern mystic now? Is this supposed to be some comedy relief?

Barnet was only 24 when he co-wrote, co-directed and starred in this feature, and his previous industry experience was limited to a handful of acting roles. However, this serial was a big hit domestically and launched him as a director. The following year he enjoyed another hit with ‘The Girl with a Hatbox/Moscow That Laughs and Weeps/Девушка с коробкой’ (1927) in which he starred Anna Sten, who’d had a small role in this film as one of Glan’s office colleagues. Although Barnet went on to acclaim as a filmmaker in his native land, the name of Sten is far better known in the West, particularly to devotees of classic era Hollywood.

Sten married Barnet’s co-director Ozep, and the couple settled in Germany. She enjoyed significant success there in films such as E A Dupont’s ‘Salto Mortale’ (1931) and ‘The Murderer Dimitri Karamazov’ (1931), co-directed by her husband. Convinced she could be the ‘new Garbo’, mogul Sam Goldwyn brought her to America, had her taught English and starred her in a trio of films, beginning with ‘Nana’ (1934). All were box office failures, and his failed attempts to make her a star were so notorious that Cole Porter even immortalised her in his classic song ‘Anything Goes’. Although she never enjoyed notable mainstream success, Sten kept plugging away for the next quarter of a century, appearing in lower-budgeted films and on television in the 1950s and early 1960s, even becoming a member of New York’s famous Actor’s Studio.

A significant achievement in Soviet silent cinema. It has its moments, but it’s a very long haul at over four hours.

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)‘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.

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)

‘Moving on…these are the slides of our trip to the Cotswolds…’

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.

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1965)

‘You know…for kids!’

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.

Mechte Nevstrechu/A Dream Come True (1963)

Mechte Nevstrechu/A Dream Come True (1963)‘Cosmonauts and dreamers say that apple trees will be in flower on Mars.’

The first manned mission to Mars is just weeks away when strange signals are received from the planet Centuria, promising first contact with an alien civilisation. A space craft is detected entering the galaxy, but then crashes on Mars. The scheduled exploration flight becomes a rescue mission…

Serious Science Fiction speculation from the Eastern Bloc is always welcome, although this intergalactic effort from directors Mikhail Karzhukov and Otar Koberidze (who also appears as Cosmonaut Batallo) is rather more undistinguished than most. The film opens with our old friend VoiceOver Man, who gives us the usual song and dance about the immensity of the universe over the usual models of planets and stars. Then we switch abruptly to footage of chiselled young men water-skiing, diving and yachting. It’s a strange and sudden shift, but VoiceOver Man is quick to explain. These are the pioneers of the new frontier; cosmonauts in training, who inhabit the special scientific community behind the Mars expedition.

We focus on dreamer Andrei (Boris Borisenko) and his true love Tanya (Larisa Gordeichik), who is impatient for him to show her his new invention; a tiny ‘crystalphone’ which he uses to broadcast a song to the universe. Never mind that it’s a terrible dirge, it catches the ear of alien woman Etanyia (T. Pochepa) on Centuria and prompts her to come visit (maybe she’s a fan of heroic Soviet vocalising!?) But her jaunt ends in disaster and, back on Earth, there’s a difference of opinion in how to deal with the situation. Crusty old Dr Laungton (Nitolay Volkov) is suspicious of the alien’s motives, and advocates a ‘hands off’ approach, but the younger Cosmonauts shout him down and Gordeichik and Borisenko become part of a rescue team, along with Koberidze and the humourless Commander (Petter Kard).

So we’re Mars-bound on spacecraft the ‘Ocean’ for a mission of mercy. And here’s where we encounter one of the film’s major flaws. We are given no backstory on any of our main characters and no effort is made to get us invested in them. Even the love story between Gordeichik and Borisenko is placed so completely in the background as to be invisible, although it does surface again in the film’s final minutes. As a result, the film lacks any dramatic tension, and becomes admirable only for its technical achievements. These include some interesting, if dated, production design and spacecraft miniatures and SFX which are very good for the era when the film was made.

Mechte Nevstrechu/A Dream Come True (1963)

The ‘Drive-In’ had made a triumphant comeback…

The film’s ending is also unfortunate. It uses footage we’ve seen earlier and could justifiably be described as rather a large cop-out. It’s a pity too, as Gordeichik begins to shine in the final act, providing some of the genuine human drama that has been lacking throughout. There’s also an awful lot of VoiceOver Man throughout the proceedings, and his role is part of the original release, rather than being added on with an English dub track by an interfering US distributor.

Given the expository commentary, the abrupt non-climax and a brief running time of 64 minutes, it’s tempting to classify this as an unfinished project, perhaps plagued by financial problems and stitched together as best as could be managed. If it were an American film, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that, but I have no idea how films were funded in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. Although, even if the project were state supported, it’s unlikely that the filmmakers were given endless resources.

The SFX did make it to Western screens, being bought up by producer Roger Corman to feature heavily in ‘Queen of Blood’ (1966). This vampire/alien mash-up starred an elderly Basil Rathbone in one of his last roles, along with young guns John Saxon and Dennis Hopper! Karzhukov and Koberidze received a writing credit for the film, even though beyond the central concept of rescuing an alien woman from her disabled spaceship, the two stories have almost nothing in common. It wasn’t the first time that Corman had cannibalised Karzhukov’s work either, he’d put the SFX from ‘The Sky Calls’ (1958) front and centre in patchwork job ‘Battle Beyond The Sun’ (1960), an early directorial credit for Francis Ford Coppola.

A disappointing effort. It has decent SFX, but little else to engage an audience.

The Big Space Journey/Bolshoe Komicheskoe Puteshestvie (1975)

The Big Space Journey (1975)‘I’d like to reward the excellent work of the crew…with an ice cream.’

Three new cosmonauts are chosen to accompany a veteran commander on a mission into space. Unusually, they are all 13 year olds; two boys and a girl. When the commander falls ill and is quarantined, they are ordered to take over the running of the mission…

Scientific hi-jinks from the Soviet Union cheerfully targeted at a juvenile audience. Writer-director Valentin Selivanov may have been inspired by compatriot Richard Viktorov’s double-header ‘Moscow-Cassiopeia’ (1974) / ‘Teens In The Universe’ (1975) but he delivers a more realistic take on the concept, leaving out wacky alien robots and ditching any silly romantic nonsense almost entirely.

Of course, the nation’s film industry had a long history of putting science fiction up on the big screen; films like ‘Aerograd’ (1935), ‘Cosmic Voyage’ (1936) and ‘Road To The Stars’ (1958) were part of the Soviet propaganda machine, unfailing in their positive presentation of man’s advancement through science; provided it was in the safe hands of the heroic men and women of the Soviet Union, of course. By the 1970s things had relaxed a little, and filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky were allowed a certain amount of flexibility, although the authorities were still quick to intervene if anything appeared too controversial. So, while we are spared some of the more obvious flag-waving of earlier films, this effort still sails very safe waters indeed.

Our three heroic astro-teens (and representatives of the grand Soviet) are Sveta (Ludmila Berlinskaya), Fedya (Sergey Obtazov) and Sasha (Igor Sakharov). The purpose and justification of their mission remains a mystery throughout; we don’t know why children are being sent into space, or what they’re supposed to do when they get there. Instead, Selivanov’s screenplay simply gives them a series of life-threatening situations to navigate (and yes, we do get the obligatory dangerous shower of meteorites). Unfortunately, there’s little for the audience to invest in, because we find out so little about these youngsters. The only character notes are provided by some very brief inserts of their time back on Earth; a go-kart race accompanied by a sudden song being a particular favourite. The SFX and model work are not too tragic, although they do look badly dated by today’s standards.

The Big Space Journey (1975)

‘I think we should realign the whatchamacallit and recalibrate the thingamajig.’

The film also lacks a consistent tone; generally it’s serious but it does include a couple of bizarre dance routines! Somehow there’s also a ship’s cat on board, a full four years before Jones took a ride on the ’Nostromo’ in Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ (1979) (Mind you, I always thought he was in league with the Xenomorph anyway).

The story develops on fairly predictable lines with the kids solving a few technical problems that interfere with the flight, before a ‘twist’ ending that should surprise no one. Still, we do get a cameo from real-life cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who talks direct to camera at the end, although his predictions for our future in space have proved woefully over-ambitious.

None of the young cast when onto significant careers in the acting business, with only a handful of credits between them. In fact, Berlinskaya never acted again. Writer-Director Selivanov helmed one other film – ‘Dnevnik Karlosa Espinoly’ (1976) and had a few other scripts produced. The brief nature of his career is not really all that surprising, considering this underwhelming project.

Completely forgettable children’s science fiction that fails to deliver anything of consequence.

Teens In The Universe/Otroki vo vselennoy (1975)

Teens In The Universe (1975)‘Who can tell a pulsating homunculus from a twinkling octosaur?’

An expedition from Earth lands on one of the planets in the Cassiopeia constellation to investigate an emergency distress signal. The ship was expected to take 27 years to reach its destination, but an accidental diversion through hyperspace means that the crew are still the teenagers they were when they left Earth, rather than the adults they were supposed to be…

Rather than a sequel to Russian science fiction film ‘Moscow-Cassiopea’ (1974), this is instead essentially the second half of that story, no doubt filmed at the same time.  Boy genius Sereda (Misha Yershov) and his half dozen crewmates are now approaching their destination after the hardcore trials and tribulations of the first film, most notably establishing the identity of the girl who passed him that romantic note in class before they left. Of course, the whole point of having such a young crew in the first place was they would be in their early 40s by this point, but due to hilarious madcap stowaway Lobanov (Vladimir Basov MI) sitting on the main control panel by mistake, they’ve taken a diversion through hyperspace and arrived 26 years early.

Back home Earthside, crew member Aleksandr Grigoryev’s family are busy holding his 40th birthday party, which is promptly gatecrashed by the mysterious A.S.A. (Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy). Like in the first film, he seems to have the ability to materialise and dematerialise at will, something which doesn’t seem to faze his hosts in the slightest. It’s also convenient for the audience as we get a recap of the story so far and an explanation of Einstein’s theories on time dilation.

Teens In The Universe (1975)

Buying glasses over the internet wasn’t always a great idea…

Eventual planetfall finds Lobanov suggesting a game of football (he’s so wacky!) while Grigoryev and Olga Bityukova carry out more serious enquiries. A couple of the locals make the scene; strange grey men in black PVC with very large flares who communicate by whistling. These are representatives of the planet’s robot overlords whose only aim is to make everybody happy.

So everything seems tickety-boo for our trio of space pioneers. They get to laugh hysterically while sitting on bouncy chairs and get free fruit juice. All a bit of a change of pace for the uptight Bityukova who wasn’t even happy earlier when Yershov decided to name the planet after her! It all seems great, except what they don’t know is that the robots’ plan for their permanent happiness involves robbing them of all human emotions and desires. Meanwhile, the last few survivors of the robot’s final solution contact the rest of our heroic crew to explain what’s going down and mount a rescue mission.

There’s far more going on in this second film than in the first part of the story, and so far less time for inane romantic complications and painful comedy. Yes, it’s still a little juvenile, but it was aimed at young teenagers so some of the lamer plot developments can be forgiven. These include robots that find riddles a fatal pastime, and a ‘nanny bot’ complete with apron and pram. On the plus side, some of the visuals are quite surreal, although the silliness of certain aspects do make it hard to take the drama seriously. A strange climax sees the reappearance of the mysterious A.S.A. Who exactly is he supposed to be, and why does no-one ever seem to question his presence? The character’s name seems to differ according to various sources as well! Something lost in translation perhaps.

It would be easy to take a hard line against this project; it’s dumb, a little puerile and never properly explores any of the dramatic possibilities inherent in the storyline. But it was designed as an entertainment for kids and, although that’s not a sufficient reason to forgive all its shortcomings, it does serve to mitigate criticism a little. The greatest point in its favour is that it’s far less aggravating than the first instalment of the story.

Not the finest example of 1970’s Soviet Science Fiction though…


Ivan Vasilievich Changes Occupation / Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973)

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Occupation (1973)‘Why did you hurt this Boyar woman, you lowly man?’

A young research scientist experimenting with a time machine opens a doorway to Imperial Russia 400 years into the past. A minor official and a petty criminal accidentally switch places with Tsar Ivan the Terrible and, when the machine goes wrong, it looks like the trio are marooned in their new time periods.

An opening caption sets the tone for this Russian comedy by informing us that the film is both ‘Not Quite Realistic’ and ‘Not Historically Accurate.’ As if we needed to be told. From the off, we’re in the company of nerdy egghead Aleksandr Demyanenko, whose experiments in the 4th dimension are leading to power cuts in his building and incurring the wrath of minor official Yuriy Yakovlev and his wife Natalya Krachkovskaya. Burglar Leonid Kuravlyov is busy working in the flat next door during one of their arguments and, when the machine starts working, he and Yakovlev find themselves part of history while the ‘Tsar of All Russias’ (Yakovlev, again) winds up in modern day Moscow.

It’s fair to say that humour doesn’t always cross national boundaries and the ‘madcap’ and ‘wacky’ antics on display here are a case in point. The opening sequence features Demyanenko alone in his flat, hoovering up his cigarettes and shoelaces by mistake while the cat goes for a swim in the fishtank. Some of the footage is speeded up for comic effect and, unfortunately, this technique is repeated ad nauseam throughout the rest of the film. Demyanenko also needs to cope with feckless wife Natalya Seleznyova, who is intending to leave him for film director Mikhail Pugovkin, a fact which doesn’t impress the newly-arrived Imperial Leader. Unfortunately, Tsar Ivan doesn’t get to do a lot else apart from bully various people and earn the attention of representatives from the local funny farm.

Similarly, back in simpler times, Yakovlev and Kuravlyov never leave the throne room, the humour of their situation revolving around the slow-witted lookalike trying to impersonate the Tsar and the thief’s attempts at making a quick buck on the side. Pretty much all we get are lots of soldiers running about when speeded up and a pie fight. To its credit, the film never pretends to be anything but a silly farce, with character talking direct to camera and plenty of energy directed into the various pratfalls. Obviously, any humour inherent in cultural references will pass over the head of a Western audience, but the physical humour is the kind that was old a good twenty years earlier and, more appropriately, belongs to film’s silent era.

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Occupation (1973)

Russia’s Greatest Love Machine was having an off day…

There are plenty of comedic opportunities in the setup, which vaguely resembles ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ (1989), but the double culture clash is never really explored, pretty much because the action almost never leaves Demyanenko’s flat or the imperial throne room. This is more understandable when you realise that this is an apparently fairly faithful adaptation of a 1935 stage play by Mikhail Bulgakov. However, a little effort to open out the action would probably have been a good idea.

The film was a big domestic hit, with over 60 million tickets sold, and, rather surprisingly, managed an international release in Europe, Scandinavia and the U.S. It’s also been sold stateside with the ‘Back to The Future’ suffix, although I suspect this might only have occurred after the success of the cinematic exploits of a certain Marty McFly.

A badly dated comedy, which might raise a few laughs amongst those who understand all the cultural references.

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.