Sunday, July 24, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 4: SOVIET AIRSPACE


I've mostly supported the home team for the last three "Space Camp" entries. Apart from a few outliers (Solaris, Message from Space, Turkish Star Wars), the focus has mainly been on films made and released in the U.S. in the years between 1950 and 1990. But, lest we forget, the Space Race was a contest waged between two countries during that period of time. The Soviets had a strong start out of the gate, launching satellites and human beings into orbit before the Yanks (not to mention a few dogs and primates). Then, in 1969, the States had a come-from-behind lead with the Apollo 11 landing. It wasn't until the USSR dissolved in '91 that the U.S. officially won by default. But what about the Space Movie Race during that same period? Who was the winner/loser there?

Surprisingly, the Soviet Union was pretty stiff competition here too. As I've discovered over the last few weeks, they turned out some quality space operas and sci-fi satires in the Cold War days. Although the films below are not all strictly Russian in origin, they do primarily come from countries considered to be in the Eastern or "Soviet Bloc" at the time. Almost half are based on Stanislaw Lem novels ("the Phillip K. Dick of Russia"). A few of them espouse obvious communist ideologies. Most importantly (for the purposes of "Space Camp," at least), they all tend to feature funky spaceship interiors, snazzy jumpsuits, multi-tasking robots and one or two fetching lady cosmonauts.

I know what you're thinking: "Houston, we have a problem." Has this blog defected, been taken over by Chechen hackers? I come here for American trash and American trash only!! Cashiers De Cinema not Kacca Der Kinho!!!! Well, calm down, fair reader. Sit back, relax and mix yourself a Stoli tonic. It's only for one month, and these are shorter than average capsule reviews. I've been in a Russkie sorta mood lately. I missed the Strange Lands Soviet sci-fi series at Lincoln Center a few years ago, and I just started reading Gary Shteyngart's growing up Russian-American memoir. I promise for the next (and final) installment of Space Camp, we will return to the States for some honest-to-goodness American astronaut movie junk food. In the meantime, "Red Alert"...

THE SILENT STAR (1960) - Kurt Maetzig πŸš€πŸš€1/2


An East German-Polish co-production based on Stanislaw Lem's first novel, The Silent Star (aka First Spaceship on Venus) is notable for being one of the most expensive Eastern Bloc productions of its era as well as for the refreshingly international makeup of its cast (Chinese, Japanese, African, German, American). When scientists find an artifact in the Gobi Desert (a sort of black box recorder with undecoded messages), they trace its origin back to Venus and embark on a manned fact-finding space mission to the supposedly uninhabited planet. Once there, they encounter a Technicolorful landscape, some metallic spider creatures suspended from wires, and a nasty sea of black sludge that looks like extra thick Dutch chocolate brownie mix. Venus is bereft of accompanying walnuts, but strong evidence leads the team to believe the messages are of alien origin and the precursor to an Earth invasion! The Silent Star boasts a healthy dose of thinly veiled anti-American sentiment, especially in reference to Hiroshima, but it's mostly in the service of a well intentioned (if a touch hamfisted) anti-nuke message.

IKARIE XB-1 (1963) JindΕ™ich PolΓ‘k πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2


Another Stanislaw Lem adaptation, this time a Czech production filmed a few years before the country's liberation during the Prague Spring. While journeying to a White Planet, a large crew of assorted scientists and astronauts encounter a "dark star" that threatens them with harmful radiation (i.e., intense drowsiness). One crew member (pictured top left) gets too big a dose and begins to act out, threatening the safety of the community at large -- a big no-no in socialist governments and highly enclosed spaces.

And, boy, what lovely geometrical spaces! The spaceship interior in Ikarie has some of the best astro art decoration I've ever seen, a monochromatic combo of Lego blocks and Lite-Brite panels. It tapped directly into my childhood toy box. In general, the Theory of Relativity gets a lot of play in this film. It's one of the earliest to tackle the issue of time passing more slowly for our orbiting crew than their family members back on Earth. It's a huge crew, too, one of the biggest I've seen in a space movie. There's enough bodies on board for a ballroom dancing scene and even some very intentional family planning. I'm not sure if I'd seen a baby born on a spaceship before Ikarie (unless you count the 2001 "Star Child"), but it felt new, as did many other aspects of this delightful film. No small feat for a 50+ year old space flick.

EOLOMEA (1972) - Hermann Zschoche πŸš€πŸš€1/2


If you're looking for an Eastern Bloc space movie to "Netflix and chill" to, you could do a lot worse than Eolomea. Of the eight films I watched, it's definitely the Jackie Brown of the bunch, a laid back hangout movie with a great '70s lounge music soundtrack that also happens, occasionally, to drift into outer space. Think of it as a summer beach read (or beach stream). There are even a few romantic oceanic interludes on the lovely sands of the Galapagos.

This East German/Soviet/Bulgarian co-production opens with a bureaucratic council discussing what to do about the eight ships that have gone missing from their space fleet. Fetching Professor Maria (Cox Habbema) wants to investigate, though the council has banned further space travel. The disappearances seem to be coming from a constellation sending out the word "Eolomea" in Morse Code. Another planet perhaps? She teams up with a lazy playboy astronaut (think Nicholson in Terms of Endearment but younger, thinner, grouchier) to find out. Sparks fly, picturesque lounging ensues. A.I. fans take note: this movie also features a great dysfunctional robot, an East German version of Forbidden Planet's Robby that overheats and fries its circuitry when supplied with an illogical order. Given the era, it could've also been the brown acid.


IN THE DUST OF THE STARS (1976) 
Gottfried Kolditz πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Another party-friendly offering from East Germany, In the Dust of the Stars follows a Day-Glo costumed crew of space explorers who get a distress call from a unknown planet. On touching down, they're informed by the planet's master of ceremonies in between hits of hallucinogenic breath spray (see pic top right) that the signal was a mistake. He invites them to stay and celebrate, partake of his Dionysian planet's various feasts, orgies and interpretative dance routines. "When on TEM-4, do as the Romans do!" Everything is absolutely groovy, until stick-in-the-mud crew navigator Suko discovers a subterranean mining colony of slaves. Bummer, man.

This one is pretty hard to find in English. As far as Google knows, the only version online is here in the original German. A trip to one of the last remaining video stores on the planet is the only way I was able to track down a copy I could understand. Considering that I was already within 20 miles, it was well worth the trip.

TEST PILOT PIRXA (1978) - Marek Piestrak πŸš€πŸš€


Yet another Stanislaw Lem adaptation, this Polish-Soviet entry is based on his short story The Inquest. Human test pilot Pirx is tasked with the mission of testing a crew of "nonlinears" on a spaceflight to Saturn. By "nonlinear" they mean android. By "testing" they mean: Is this robot more Ash from Alien (bad) or Bishop from Aliens (good)? Hard to know with these skin jobs. The proceedings are mostly pretty dull either way, in flight and back on Earth. That said, I watched a version with terribly out of sync subtitles, which may have ruined the dramatic effect. If you happen to know Spanish, you can give Test Pilot a properly subtitled whirl here and judge for yourself. 


TO THE STARS BY HARD WAYS (1981) -
Richard Viktorov πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Speaking of robots...imagine Ex Machina but with a more sympathetic heroine who looks like a cross between a young, platinum blonde Sinead O'Connor and Shelly Duvall's Olive Oyl. Are you sold? I was. Of the eight "Soviet Airspace" movies I watched, Russian-born To the Stars By Hard Ways was the best (and freakiest) of the bunch.

Niya (Yelena Metyolkina) is a humanoid woman left for dead on an abandoned spaceship before being brought back to Earth for study. A neurocenter is found in her brain that allows her to be controlled remotely. For a while, she hangs out with a scientist's family, learning about Earthly pleasures and practicing her low-grade supernatural abilities. But she soon remembers details about her home planet, Dessa, which was being ravaged by greedy (and occasionally elfin) industrialists before she left. She and her new human pals go back to save the planet, its polluted atmosphere and water systems now clogged with something that looks like electrified marshmallow fluff.  Along the way, we encounter a robot that plays doubles tennis, a blobby marine creature who dislikes cats and bad guys who shave all but one small section of their cheek (see bottom left). This is also one of the first movies I've seen where tickling is used as a primary mode of defense.

Apparently, this film (aka Per Aspera Ad Astra) was a pretty big hit in Russia when it came out. So much so, that many Russian women adopted the close-shave Niya haircut. I can see why: It's hard to take your eyes off her, and often she can't take her giant round orbs off the audience (there are frequent shots where she stares into camera, obliterating the fourth wall). The version I watched was a newly restored one done by director's son, a fantastic transfer with a great synth-heavy soundtrack. There's also a badly dubbed MSTK3000 version out there, if you desire a built-in audience.

KIN-DZA-DZA! (1986) - Georgiy Daneliya πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Ever wondered what the Russian Spaceballs might be like? Or how about Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy done as a Samuel Beckett play? Kin-dza-dza! may be the closest to those two things you will ever get.

This late '80s Soviet space satire about a Moscow working stiff and a street fiddler who accidentally get zapped to a run-down desert planet still has relevance in today's political landscape. Nothing is free, everything is up for barter. The currency of choice is matchstick heads. There's racism among the clans, and newcomers are racially profiled with a contraption that looks like a light-up USB stick. "Koo" is an all-purpose word that means a dozen different things, more linguistically reductive than any Twitter buzzword. People also wear bells in their noses and prostrate themselves in odd crouches when meeting others. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we all have nose bells. There's probably a ton of other political commentary on '80s Soviet society in Kin-dza-dza! that went above my pay grade, but, at heart, it plays more as lighthearted spoof than Soviet economics lecture.

HARD TO BE A GOD (1989) - 
Peter Fleischmann πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


If you've seen 2013's black and white Russian miserablist masterpiece Hard To Be God by Aleksei German, you may still want to check out this '89 color version just so you know what the hell was going on in that. A USSR-German film based on the popular 1964 Brothers Strugatsky novel, it sticks more closely to plot in telling the tale of  a planet that has regressed back to the medieval ages and the operative, Anton, who's sent back to study it by impersonating a demigod. 

While not as immersive (or as mucus slathered) as the 2013 version, it does have its distinct film geek pleasures. Werner Herzog plays a previous operative who was sent to the planet but unfortunately gets lanced in the back in the first ten minutes. The lead actor looks like a cross between Highlander and Rutger Hauer in Flesh + BloodThere's yet another great synth-heavy score and a laughable title song that sings out the film's title ("It's hard to be a god!"). In short, good late '80s stuff. It would only be two more years before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed, but in their heyday the "failed experiment" made some pretty diverting cinematic space camp.

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