"From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema"

Dennis Harvey August 23, 2007

If ever an empire benefited from keeping its citizens eyes glued hopefully on the horizon, it was the USSR. What with the post-Revolution exodus of aristocratic wealth, famines, Stalin, Stalingrad, and so on and so forth, life was never all that easy — unless you were a Party official, perhaps — in the erstwhile Soviet Union. (Of course, one could also argue that it’s gotten worse for many ordinary Russians since glorious glasnost came calling — the transition to not-exactly-democracy dismantling prior social welfare norms, creating an ever-widening gap between newly poor and often criminally corrupt nouveau riche.)

Soviet participation in the space race against leading anti-Commie Western power America made sense during the Cold War.

And for a while there, danged if them Russkies didn’t look like they were winning the race. Sputnik thrilled the Yankee sense of adventure at the same time it terrorized our sense of being dominated — in the cosmos yet! — by soulless Socialists. No wonder NASA got a massive infusion of cash, leading to the astonishing peak of that first moon landing: An event that so stretched the popular imagination some conspiracy theorists still think it was faked.

Russia’s Cosmonauts and scientists didn’t ultimately “conquer space” as fast or as thoroughly. But in retrospect there’s a certain poignancy to their attempt. The USSR was a failed experiment like pretty much every such exercise, one that betrayed Marxist theology thanks to that eternal bete noir, Power-Grabbing Leadership. But it promised so much. As the promise failed to connect with most citizens’ everyday reality, their attentions were not unpurposefully directed toward a better life that might come from the stars themselves.

Hence, Soviet sci-fi was a popular genre in all media. The Pacific Film Archive’s “From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema” offers a wonderful three-week sampling of its cinematic aspect (Russian sci-fi lit is a whole other area worth scrutiny), stretching from the silent era to the end of Communism.

Some of these movies have kitschily dated aspects, occasionally because they resemble similar, familiar Hollywood flick-reflected through a cultural funhouse mirror. Many remain fascinating and delightful because they are just so profoundly different from the vast majority of such adventures made anywhere else, certainly in the West.

The most obvious reason for that difference: Since all movies made in the USSR were directly approved, funded and controlled (if sometimes banned as well) by the State, they enjoyed considerable resources. They expressed ideas (and/or ideologies, often propagandic) more complex or “improving” than films made for purely commercial purposes elsewhere. There are no Z-grade giant tarantula or Martian-invasion movies here. Of course, I don’t think the Soviets had drive-ins to fill with necking teenagers during the Cold War.

While the series itself isn’t programmed in chronological order, let’s approach it that way. First up is a 1924 classic that’s become something of a cult favorite here in recent years. Jakov Protazanov’s “Aelita, Queen of Mars” is a marvel of Russian Constructivist/Futurist design whose story is sort of a Martian invasion in reverse. Three Russkies land on Mars just in time to experience its proletariat rising up against their sexpot Queen (Julia Solntseva, who later became collaborator-wife to great Soviet director Dovzhenko). The costume designs alone are worth the price of admission.

The PFA then jumps forward to well into the Cold War, when sci-fi had ceased to seem idle fantasy and was now credible speculation. With impressive-for-their-time production design and FX, these movies were desirable abroad-sorta. The “King of the B’s” himself Roger Corman bought Stateside rights to several. His drastically recut, badly dubbed U.S. versions inserted new cheesy new footage, arriving at unrecognizable fresh permutations of Soviet material for an oblivious American drive-in market.

Thus far more Yanks have seen seen its three (!) Corman paste-up jobs (including 1968’s “Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women,” psuedononymously assembled by the young Peter Bogdanovich) than Pavel Klushantsev’s original 1961 “Planet of Storms,” which kicks off the PFA series. It’s a serious, often gorgeously designed interplanetary adventure in which cosmonauts (and their robots) exploring Venus confront earthquakes, lava flow, flooding and a Venus Flytrap-like creature with grabby tentacles. When the lone female crewmember makes an against-orders judgment call to save lives, a male ‘naut chortles “Robot can think it through-but a woman cannot!” OK, so misogyny wasn’t yet purged from the Soviet ranks.

1961 was evidently a big year for USSR fantasy film. Huge local hit “The Amphibian Man” is an eccentric and delightful proto-“Splash”cum“Waterworld” in which the gilled-mutant son of a scientist discovers romance and other life-on-land pleasures. Ostensibly set in Cuba, the film is (like the famous “I Am Cuba”) a very Soviet take on “Latin” culture. The same annum’s “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka” is not sci-fi but a lavish Gogol-based parable that sets its protagonist on a fanciful journey involving the Devil himself. In the latter vein, the PFA will screen Pushkin-inspired “Ruslan and Ludmila,” Aleksandr Ptushko’s final (1972), reportedly spectacular masterpiece of surrealism and set design.

Later Soviet fantasy films became more philosophical, led by Andrei Tarkovsky’s inner-space explorations “Solaris” (1972) and “Stalker” (1979). Still thoughtful if sillier, Richard Viktorov’s 1982 “To the Stars by Hard Ways” has a big-eyed Annie Lennox lookalike rescued from an abandoned spaceship leading her new Earth pals back to save a contaminated planet. Aspects are campy now (dubbed into English as “Humanoid Woman,” the film even got a “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” roasting), but it’s still kinda cool.

The last films (chronologically speaking) in the PFA series address the USSR’s encroaching collapse almost directly. “Stalker,” arguably Tarkovsky’s most visually enveloping and least pretentious movie, could be read as a requiem for the death of genuine intellectualism and ideological belief. Karen Shakhnazarov’s 1988 “Zero City” is balder still. Its arresting, Kafka-esque nightmare ends when lights are systematically shut out on a creepy museum’s dioramas of Soviet historical triumphs. Meanwhile our hitherto trapped hero paddles rowboat to freedom — or possible oblivion — on the open sea. Two decades later, that seems as good a metaphor for Russia’s post-glasnost saga as any.

The one post-Communist feature programmed here is an apt choice. Alexei Fedorchenko’s 2005 “First on the Moon” is a wonderful “Zelig”-like co-mingling of archival and fictive footage that purports to chronicle a failed USSR stab at space conquest in the 1930s. Sending up old-school Stalinist propaganda with superb technical mimicry as well as a certain affectionate melancholy “First” exudes a game-over-already resignment. Would State censors have allowed its exposure even a year or two earlier?

These days, Russia is both invading our screen marketplace — notably via the sci-fi trilogy commenced by “Night Watch” — and repulsing our bullish World Superpower supremacy. Is a second Cold War ahead? Who knows. But whether it is or not, expect a new wave of futuristic fantasy from those erstwhile Reds. After all, the present might be politically or ideologically disruptive, but the future is something we all agree we need — and are worried about