Posts Tagged ‘SF’

I have occasionally written in the past of the distinct pleasure of going to see a film knowing very little in advance about it, especially in a genre I particularly enjoy. This is why there are a bunch of Russian SF movies lined up on my hard-drive, waiting for a day when it is too sunny for me to comfortably move around outside, and also why my interest was piqued when the UPP’s vintage slot was taken up by Czech director Jindrich Polak’s 1963 film Ikarie XB-1, which it billed as a ‘pioneering and much-imitated cornerstone of contemporary sci-fi’. This was particularly intriguing, as this is a film I had never been aware of before.

One thing about old SF movies from behind the Iron Curtain is that they seem a bit more likely to be based on a respectable piece of literature than their American equivalents – you still get terrible, low-budget knock-offs like Space Cop, but also lots of movies based on the works of the Strugatsky brothers and especially Stanislaw Lem. Ikarie XB-1 is apparently a loose adaptation of a Lem novel entitled The Magellanic Cloud, but it seems to me to have a much greater and somewhat surprising significance within SF as a cinematic genre.

The film has a slightly disconcerting in media res opening, with a clearly troubled and somewhat disfigured crewman (Otto Lackovic) in the process of running amok on the ship with a blaster, wailing about the Earth never having existed. The stark black-and-white photography and camerawork instantly puts one in mind of continental art cinema from around the period, even though the sets and costumes are still to some extent in the glitzy pulp SF tradition. From here we launch into opening credits powered along by a memorably jangly and discordant musical score.

We flash back to the beginning of the mission which the film is concerned with, and the departure into deep space of the Ikarie XB-1, effectively a small space colony dispatched on a decades-long mission to the Alpha Centauri system – however, due to the mysterious effects of time dilation, only a couple of years will pass for the crew. The craft is mostly crewed by strapping young men and young women with a certain exotic something about them; there are also a couple of distinguished-looking character actors in command, most obviously Zdenek Stepanek as Captain Vladimir Abajev. There is also the ship’s robot, an extraordinarily clunky and unconvincing prop – this is the single biggest weakness in the whole picture.

The ship heads out into the great darkness, and various members of the crew reflect on their position, some in an existential sort of way, others contemplating more personal concerns – one of them, for instance, has left their pregnant partner back on Earth, and is struggling to get his head around the fact his daughter will be fifteen when they meet, even though for him only a fraction of that time will elapse. They also encounter various hazards, such as derelict spaceships from the 20th century (this film does that thing of being set exactly 200 years into the future, with the XB-1 setting off in 2163), and a ‘dark star’ emitting lethal radiation.

If the slightly episodic nature of the plot is an attempt to evoke the feeling of an epic journey across space, then this scheme is somewhat undercut by the fact the film is just shy of being 90 minutes long: as a result it just feels like a movie which is lacking in a strong central narrative. Now, it is certainly possible to try and do this kind of SF film as a mood or character piece, but it is unusual to find it being attempted in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s, regardless of whether or not this is a film based on a novel.

Watching the movie, you are much more aware of it as a piece of cinema anyway – I have occasionally wondered about the extent to which Communist film-makers were influenced by their western counterparts, especially when it came to genre movies, and Ikarie XB-1 suggests they were certainly aware of what was going on. Quite apart from the fact that some of the effects shots come perilously close to evoking 1930s Flash Gordon serials (the XB-1 is just a little bit too wobbly on its plunge across the stars), it seems a no-brainer that the makers of this film had watched Forbidden Planet, if nothing else – the plot bears no real similarities to that of the American movie, but there is something there in the aesthetic of the film, especially in that awful robot, which has an exposed brain like an miniature fairground attraction, obviously based on Robbie the Robot.

Despite all that, Ikarie XB-1 never actually feels like a piece of kitsch, derivative B-movie cinema – not in the Czech-language version, anyway. It has a rather downbeat, naturalistic quality that I wasn’t expecting at all, the performances are serious, and it isn’t afraid to touch on some more thoughtful ideas  and psychological issues along the way. The ending does come a bit out of nowhere, but it concerns humanity making unexpected contact with a totally unknown, clearly very alien civilisation or intelligence, and this is epochal event is presented not as something to be terrified of, but a source of wonder. Perhaps one is looking too hard for connections which don’t actually exist, but it is not really surprising to learn that when Stanley Kubrick was assimilating the SF genre in the early 1960s, looking to make ‘the proverbial good science fiction film’, this was apparently one of the films that really influenced him.

It is a bold move to suggest that Ikarie XB-1 is, in fact, the missing link in the development of the SF movie between Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I do think there is an element of truth to it. I suspect most of this is obscured in the US version of the film, which was inaccurately re-titled Voyage to the End of the Universe and had a different, feeble-sounding, Twilight Zone-ish ending foisted on it by the American distributor. As usual, the original version is much more interesting. I still think the Czech version has issues when it comes to the script, but in many other ways this film lives up to the claims made for it as a significant entry in the genre’s history.

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Having an orderly brain, I noted a few years ago that the gap between the first Men in Black film and the second one was five years, and further that the gap between the second and the third was ten years. It seemed a fairly reasonable assumption that there would be a twenty year gap between the third and the fourth, presumably with Will Smith moving into the role of the grizzled old veteran and someone as-yet-unheard-of providing the youthful glamour. Friends, I am shocked to have to relate this, but I was wrong. The new Men in Black film has come out thirteen years early, and I have to say that some might suggest it shows.

The title of the thing is Men In Black International, concerning the global doings of the secret agency which, for the purposes of this franchise, polices alien activity on the planet Earth. (‘But… but…’ anyone who was paying attention back in 1997 might be spluttering, ‘wasn’t it kind of established then that aliens were really just limited to the New York area?’ Good point. But shush.) The story gets going, chronologically speaking, with a young girl named Molly witnessing the Men in Black in action and wiping her parents’ memories afterwards. She grows up to be a massive over-achiever (Tessa Thompson) and through diligence and ingenuity manages to track the agency to its secret base, where she persuades the director (Emma Thompson, mostly phoning it in) to recruit her.

She is then packed off to the London branch, where there are suggestions of something not being quite right in the ranks of the persons with a wardrobe of a limited chromatic range. It seems that a few years ago there was a showdown atop the Eiffel Tower, which contains some sort of hyperspace gateway built by M. Eiffel, who was also a Man in Black. (‘But.. but… wasn’t it kind of established that the Men in Black came into existence as an exclusively American agency, in 1961?’ Another good point. But shush again.) The two agents involved (Liam Neeson and Chris Hemsworth) saved the world from an invasion by shape-shifting alien horrors, but Hemsworth’s character has been acting rather erratically ever since.

And there is some more plot following this, but I will not trouble you with the details as they are unlikely to linger much in your head, even if you see the movie. The general recipe for the film is kind of the same as before: there’s a gentle send-up of some of the tropes of B-movie sci-fi, mixed with some spy and cop movie clichés, and also a few potentially slightly scary bits with an almost Lovecraftian sense of gribbly tentacled unpleasantness pressing in on the margins of the mundane world.

The thing is that this time around… well, here’s what I have been led to understand about this film. Apparently director Gray was keen to make a film with a bit of a satirical edge to it and some social commentary on the topic of immigration (you can imagine how that would work, along with some of the more obvious gags – one wonders what kind of dismal alien hell-world could have spawned the current US administration). Producer Walter Parkes (who I feel obliged to mention has some pretty decent movies on his CV) wanted something a bit more middle-of-the-road and proceeded to start rewriting the script while the film was actually in production. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who reputedly signed on on the strength of the Gray script, were understandably bemused and independently recruited writers of their own to polish their dialogue.

(Yes, I know, it is utterly baffling that films are made this way, and we have to assume that it is not standard practice in the industry. Even so, this is a production with a budget of somewhere in the region of $100 million, yet the creative process involved seems to have primarily been based around squabbling and bemusement.)

When you consider all this, not to mention the producer and the director both assembling their own edits of the finished film (the producer’s version won out), one does have to say that Men in Black International is a staggering achievement in the way it still manages to be a more or less coherent story without a large number of holes in the plot. This is not to say that there aren’t any – there are still a few, and to be honest they are biggies, but it is unlikely to bother most members of the audience as the clash of different visions has resulted in a film with very little sense of what it’s supposed to be beyond a brand extension and franchise instalment. No one is likely to care or be engaged enough to worry too much about whether it makes any sense.

I mean, look, there is virtually wall-to-wall CGI for most of the film, and it is all very professionally done; fights and chases turn up on a regular basis; there are plot reversals and so on too. But none of it feels as if it means anything – it is all very mechanical and uninspired. It feels like a Men in Black film produced by some sort of artificial intelligence, or a joke written by a computer – all the structural elements are present and correct, it’s just completely flat and lifeless.

Now, of course, with this kind of film, winning chemistry from charismatic leads can go a long way towards taking up any bagginess in the other departments, but the film is also afflicted with, if this isn’t too harsh a way of putting it, the Chris Hemsworth problem. I have certainly enjoyed many Chris Hemsworth films and Chris Hemsworth performances in the past (mostly the ones where he has been playing Thor, to be honest). I have no beef with him as a person, not least because I have no personal relationship with him. However, he is in the awkward spot of being someone whose films make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but only when he plays that one character he’s famous for. So just how big a star is he really? Opinion seems to be divided on the topic, especially if you consider the stories that one of the reasons the fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie folded was Hemsworth’s involvement being judged not to be worth his very hefty asking price (he was due to reprise his before-he-was-famous role as Captain Kirk’s dad). Hemsworth’s attempts to establish himself as a leading man in his own right are not helped by the fact he is essentially giving a lightweight version of the same performance he delivered in his last couple of MCU movies (here the ratio is about 70% swagger to 30% smug), or the fact he’s paired with Tessa Thompson, one of his regular foils from those same movies, or the fact that the film brazenly includes cheesy in-jokes alluding to Hemsworth having played Thor for the last eight years. As for Thompson herself, I have to say I’m not entirely sure she has the chops to be co-lead in a big aspiring blockbuster like this one. She’s not actually bad. But you’re still perhaps a little surprised to see her there, vaguely feeling that you were expecting someone else.

This is cinematic entertainment as disposable, mechanical product. It is rarely actually dull, for at least it has been edited together to provide a good deal of pace. But it is just a succession of sounds and pictures that makes sense in a transactional sort of way. It has no resonance, no subtlety, no depth, nothing new to say or do. It almost feels like it is aspiring to be mediocre. Anything which made the first couple of films in this series memorable and entertaining has been scraped out of the carcass and what remains lurches across the screen in an almost wholly affectless way. It doesn’t engage the emotions, the brain, or the sense of humour. Nobody was demanding this film, I suspect, but it could still have potentially revitalised and updated the series. Instead, I think that in a sane world it would constitute the final swift blow to its throat. So we can probably expect a reboot at some point in the next ten years.

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In the UK we are used to genre movies being given distinction and a touch of gravitas by the presence of classy actors who you wouldn’t automatically associate with low-budget horror and fantasy – the most famous examples being, of course, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. This famous duo top a list of first-rate performers which includes people like Andre Morell, Oliver Reed, George Sanders, Ralph Richardson, Patrick Troughton, and many more. When it comes to American films, however, it feels like this doesn’t happen nearly so much. The blazingly obvious exception is Vincent Price, of course (an actor who also made films in Britain, of course), but apart from him, who else is there? Mostly just people at the very beginnings (Jack Nicholson) or ends (Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone) of their careers.

And then there is Ray Milland, an A-list star for many years, and Paramount’s highest paid performer as well. In his later years Milland turned up in various made-for-TV fare, some of which got theatrical releases over here (he is in the first Battlestar Galactica movie, for example), but in the 1960s he followed in Vincent Price’s footsteps and made a handful of films with Roger Corman. One of these was an entry into Corman’s cycle of Poe adaptations; the other, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, is slightly trickier to pin down when it comes to its pedigree.

The film was released in 1963. Milland plays James Xavier, a scientist and surgeon who is brilliant to the point of actual arrogance. The particular bee in Xavier’s bonnet is his dissatisfaction with the fact that the human eye can only perceive 10% or so of the spectrum. Feeling we should do better, he has obtained funding to develop some hormonal eyedrops to expand the range of human vision, and happily demonstrates them to a representative of the funding body, Diane Fairfax (Diana van der Vlis), by testing them on a monkey. The monkey indeed appears to briefly acquire the ability to see through sheets of card, which is good, but then it appears to die of shock, which is not. Having skipped the same class on hubris and nemesis as Dr Frankenstein, Seth Brundle, and every other SF-horror movie scientist you care to mention, Xavier cheerfully ignores the deceased simian and, facing a review from the money men, takes the eyedrops himself.

Well, the results are mixed, as his funding is suspended as the committee holding the purse strings have grave doubts about his work – but looking on the bright side, he can now achieve miracles of surgery, and also see everyone naked at parties (of course, as the movie was made in 1963, so this is all presented very innocently). However, an uneasy colleague, disturbed by Xavier’s arrogance, assures him he will be tried for malpractice, and a friend’s attempt to make an intervention results in the friend falling out of a window many stories up (this bit is not fantastically well presented).

Xavier is forced to drop out of sight (no pun intended), taking up residence first as a theme park novelty act, and later as a kind of faith healer, encouraged in both of these by an unscrupulous associate, Crane (a really nice performance by Don Rickles) – it’s the only way he can make any money to fund further research, for his sight is continuing to change. But when Diane finds him, he resolves to use his special faculties to fund his research – by going to Las Vegas and taking on the casinos. However, his vision is continuing to expand, causing him no small psychological stress, as reality itself literally unravels before his eyes…

So, on one level this is obviously another of those cautionary tales about Misguided Scientists Meddling In Things Of Which Man Was Not Meant To Know, although some commentators have found more interesting and subtle elements to it – Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, suggests that it is one of the few American horror films to conjure up an authentically Lovecraftian sense of dreadful cosmic horror, which I suppose is arguably the case: Xavier gibbers of catching sight of a great, all-seeing eye at the heart of the universe, which certainly sounds like the sort of thing Lovecraft would have come up with. (King also writes of a supposedly lost ‘original ending’, in which Xavier despairingly wails ‘I can still see!’, even after [spoilers redacted]. Roger Corman denies this ever existed, but acknowledges it is a better conclusion than the one in the film.)

Whatever you think of the story – and personally, I find it to be just a bit too linear and obvious, and by no means rushed even at less than 80 minutes in duration – the film works as well as it does mostly because of Milland’s terrific central performance. You can see why this guy was a major star for decades – in the early part of the film in particular, it’s like watching Cary Grant making a sci-fi B-movie: Milland has the same effortless suave charisma, he even sounds a bit like Grant. As the film goes on, he handles Xavier’s descent into haunted despair and then mania equally well, wringing every drop from a script, which (naked party scenes aside) handles its subject matter with commendable seriousness. With the possible exception of Rickles, no-one else really gets a look in.

Of course, you can pretty much guarantee that a film subtitled The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is going to include some ambitious point-of-view shots, and for a film of its time this one produces some interesting effects as it goes on. They are striking and lurid, for the most part, especially the psychedelic cityscapes that Xavier witnesses towards the end of the film. On the other hand, they are to some degree expressionistic – Corman has spoken of updating the film with more modern optical effects, and you can understand why. Whether this would include taking a second look at the final shot of the film, which for me doesn’t really work, I don’t know.

In any case, this is a solid, well-scripted film, interesting to look at and with a clear sense of what it wants to be. It’s Ray Milland’s performance, though, which really makes it memorable and distinctive.

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It’s not unheard of for young actors to achieve a staggering level of success in what’s essentially their first prominent role – this usually happens in adaptations of books aimed at a young-ish audience, or at least with a young-ish protagonist, as these kinds of projects tend to come with a built-in audience and so the studio is a bit more prepared to take a chance on an unknown. The quandary, then, is what a serious-minded young actor, propelled into celebrity at a tender age, supposed to do next? Some of them take the cards they’ve been dealt, cheerfully gun the engine and head right on down Mainstream Highway, but others are clearly afflicted by the need to show they have taste and range and a desire to do artistically significant work. One of the ways you used to be able to do this was by appearing in a Woody Allen film, as Emma Stone and Kristen Stewart both did, but that option is basically off the table now. Stewart also went kind of art-housey in Personal Shopper a few years ago. It’s the kind of deal that works for both the performer and the makers of the film: the performer will hopefully get to show their range and seriousness about their art, while the big name star should help an otherwise uncommercial project attract attention and funding.

You can see the same kind of trade-off at work in Claire Denis’ High Life, which stars Stewart’s one-time co-star (amongst other things, hem-hem) Robert Pattinson. Denis revealed that every time she came to the UK to meet actors, Pattinson would turn up, whether he was invited or not, despite the fact she felt he was too young. Luckily, the march of entropy being what it is, Pattinson eventually stopped being too young, and now here he is, in a film which I can only describe as… you know, it doesn’t really lend itself to a brief description. What I will say is that this is a startlingly and often unpleasantly graphic film, and there may be turns of phrase on the way that will make you go ‘ugh’. Don’t blame me, blame Claire Denis.

The film occurs almost exclusively aboard a rather odd spaceship, which from the outside resembles a 1970s stereo cabinet. The film opens in the ship’s hydroponics section, which of course leads one to wonder about the extent to which this is a knowing homage to Silent Running; this line of thought is rapidly dispelled by the sounds of an infant, who appears to be being raised by computers. It turns out this is because her father (Pattinson) is outside fixing the spaceship. The two of them seem to be quite alone and lead a peaceful life of quiet routine; he seems to be an attentive and caring parent. Every day he has to make a progress report in order for the ship’s computer to keep the life support switched on for another twenty-four hours, which seems like an odd arrangement. Our first clue that even odder things have been going on here comes when Pattinson, wanting to economise on his electric bill, shuts down the ship’s cryogenics unit and dumps the corpses of the rest of the crew out of the airlock.

Needless to say, there are flashbacks to come, and slowly and incrementally the (rather unlikely, if you ask me) story of the ship comes into focus. This is a long-haul mission set to last many years, with a crew composed entirely of death-row convicts launched off into deep space to carry out experiments on using the rotational energy of black holes to solve Earth’s resource problems. Not that anyone on board seems to be thinking much about thermodynamics: everyone, with the possible exception of Pattinson’s character, Monte, seems to have become fixated on rather more basic issues.

Intimate contact between the members of the crew is apparently prohibited, but the builders of the ship have thoughtfully provided a room in which frustrated crew members can masturbate away to their heart’s content (although duff plumbing means there are puddles of all sorts of bodily fluids in the corridor outside). One keen user of this facility is the ship’s doctor (Juliette Binoche); there is a frankly astonishing sequence recording one of her visits to the room, in much more detail than I really needed to see. Apart from this, her main interest is in trying to produce a child through artificial insemination, to which end she is cheerfully manipulating and drugging the other crew members. Tensions inevitably rise between the other crew members, which only Pattinson is partly immune to, mostly because he’s trying to stay abstinent (just for a change). But how long will it be before the mission itself is endangered…?

As you can perhaps see from the poster, High Life has earned itself some glowing reviews and enviable star ratings, many of them from sources not often impressed by SF films. I suspect this is one of those SF films which people who don’t like SF will like. SF films which people who don’t like SF will like tend to fall into two categories: there are the ones which basically use SF props to tell a story lifted wholesale from another genre and reskinned – a lot of mainstream studio SF falls into this category. Then there is the more arty kind of obscure movie, which uses SF themes and imagery to deal with subtle and abstract philosophical and artistic notions.

Critics tend to love this latter kind of film, and will happily overlook the fact that the story is ludicrous. This is a film set on a spaceship which looks like a stereo cabinet, crewed by death-row inmates, with puddles of semen all over the floor, and we’re supposed to believe it’s giving us some grand insight into the human condition and ‘what it means to be human’? The most profound insight on offer here is a suggestion of what would happen if someone launched the Big Brother house into deep space, because it’s basically about a bunch of unsympathetic and frankly weird characters who appear to have become totally fixated with sexual matters. I don’t recognise this as ‘what it means to be human’; I only recognise it as what happens when a misanthropic and pretentious film director hooks up with someone from Twilight and gets to work on a script with a suspicious large number of names on it.

I should say that the script starts off being quite weird and only gets worse as the story continues. One character ‘commits suicide by burying himself in the garden’ (that’s from High Life‘s Wikipedia entry). Late-on, there’s a very strange interlude where the spaceship encounters another stereo cabinet, but this one appears to be inhabited solely by stray dogs. What any of it is supposed to signify is very difficult to work out.

As I say, you can see the makers of High Life are not unfamiliar with SF films from years gone by – in addition to Silent Running, you can perhaps discern the influence of films like Moon, Sunshine, and Interstellar. But all of those films seemed to have something to say for themselves about human beings and their place in the universe. The problem with High Life isn’t just that it’s a bleak and dystopian vision of the future, it’s that it seems to have nothing original to say for itself. Yes, human beings can be horrible and repellent, but they’re not necessarily like that, and if you’re going to suggest that the antics of a bunch of people plucked from death row and launched into deep space can offer a real insight into how people in general will behave – well, I’m afraid you’ve lost me.  It may be that this genuinely is a profound and insightful film, but the general tone and atmosphere of it is so repulsive I find it very difficult to look at it objectively. Claire Denis has certainly succeeded in taking the SF movie somewhere new, it’s just not a place there seems much point in visiting.

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I have commented a couple of times in the past on the tendency of Soviet-era SF movies to go out of their way to clarify that they are not set in or particularly about the USSR itself, presumably because they don’t want to appear to be criticising the state, even implicitly. This is not the case with Vasili Zhuravlov’s Cosmic Voyage, for the whole point of the film is to anticipate the coming triumphs of the Soviet people in the realm of space travel. There is a mild irony in the fact that, despite this, the film managed to get itself withdrawn from general release after a very short period of time and went almost totally unseen for decades. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess.

Cosmic Voyage originally appeared under the title Космический рейс (Kosmicheski Reis), in 1936, and the first thing you notice about it is that this is a silent movie, a form which obviously endured longer in the USSR than it did in western cinema. A caption informs us that the events depicted occurred (or will occur) in the year 1946, and you are struck again by the fact that no-one in the mid 30s seems to have had any inkling of the horrors to come in the next decade. Certainly the cityscape depicted in the opening moments of the film, which inevitably feels somewhat indebted to Lang’s Metropolis, shows no signs of the ravages of the Great Patriotic War – it is the stuff of a utopia, its most distinctive feature being what looks like an immense bridge. Or is it a bridge? Well, no, unless you consider it a bridge to the stars: it is the launch track for a rocket-plane. (This method of launching has since been discredited, but it continued to feature in western SF well into the 1950s – see When Worlds Collide and Fireball XL5 – so it’s not as if it was absurd to feature it here.)

The rocket-plane in question is the USSR-1, which has recently been completed. This being the case, it transpires that a senior scientist, Professor Sedych (Sergei Komarov), has decided he’s going to use it to go to the Moon, without bothering to check with his superiors. As a result, dashing young officer Viktor (Nikolai Feoktistov) is ordered to find Sedych and restrain him. Viktor’s sweetheart Marina (Ksenia Moskalenko) doesn’t know what to make of this, mainly because she is Sedych’s assistant. Viktor’s little brother Andrei (Vassili Gaponenko) is also not impressed – Andrei is clearly intended to be loveably boisterous and energetic young lad, but he inevitably comes across as a pain in the neck.

Well, they find Sedych and he is dragged before his boss, Karin (Vasili Kovrigin), who informs him he is mad for wanting to go to the Moon, as he won’t survive the stresses of the journey. Sedych demands to see evidence of this, and so Karin produces various dead rabbits which have been used as guinea pigs (if you see what I mean) in other space test flights. Sedych makes the reasonable point that he is not a rabbit, but Karin is implacable, and insists that they proceed with animal testing – a pussycat is duly rocketed off into the void. Sedych is not impressed by this and proposes to Viktor that they go to the Moon without official permission.

Various scenes ensue of the preparations for the unauthorised launch; Andrei recruits the local chapter of the Young Communist League (not named as such on screen, but it’s obviously something along those lines) to run interference for them, and there are many scenes of the characters packing their suitcases ahead of the flight. Mrs Sedych is worried that the Moon will be cold, and is determined that her husband will have a good supply of warm socks as well as ties and so forth (the Prof would rather take a lot of heavy scientific textbooks). As you can see, there is something more than a little credulity-straining about these moments of broad comedy, but at least they keep the film rattling along.

Eventually it is time for launch, and Viktor reveals his true colours as stooge for Karin, who is determined to stop the flight. For this lack of moral and intellectual courage, and quite contrary to what you would expect from a western film with a similar theme, the square-jawed young romantic lead is not allowed to go to the Moon, and when the rocket-plane takes off, the crew consists of an old man, a young woman, and a boy. ‘Forward into Space!’ cries Sedych. ‘Long live youth!’ It is genuinely stirring stuff, even eight decades later.

Even sound movies from the 1930s and 40s seem a little weird to the modern viewer, and so it is not really surprising that Cosmic Voyage is no exception to this – this is a silent movie, and the product of a rather different culture than that responsible for most of the films we know today. And yet, in many ways it does feel rather familiar, and certainly part of a tradition of early space films that were able to generate the gosh-wow effect fuelling so much SF cinema simply by trying to predict the future as accurately as possible. It is true that Cosmic Voyage‘s rocket-planes are distinctly reminiscent of Flash Gordon’s spaceship from one of the Universal serials, but this is a film really trying hard to get the science right, as far as it was known at the time: the co-writer on the script was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the founders of rocketry, although he died before the film was released. The cosmonauts immerse themselves in tanks of liquid to protect them from the stresses of take-off, while there is another sequence which depicts them discovering the delights of life in zero gravity – obviously, 2001 it ain’t, but it’s still surprisingly well done. The same can certainly be said of some of the sequences depicting the visitors bounding across the lunar surface – the film-makers’ ideas of what the Moon would look like are a little wide of the mark, but the animation used is astonishingly good – so good, in fact, that one could almost be forgiven for assuming these are modern interpolations made using 21st century techniques to achieve a somewhat retro effect.

It is a little bemusing, therefore, that these sequences are the reason why the film vanished from sight after only a brief release and was not seen for many decades: apparently the USSR’s censors felt that this kind of special effects sequence was contrary to the principles of ‘socialist realism’ and pulled the movie as a result. If this is true, then I find it a little difficult to get my head round – is it solely because the sequence was animated, as opposed to using live actors like the rest of the film? This seems a very odd distinction to be making, although it’s not as if Soviet society in the 1930s wasn’t noted for its arbitrariness in many respects.

Still, at least the film is available again now, and it is a very watchable one with a definite charm to it. The political and allegorical subtexts of the film are obvious, and occasionally surprising – the emphasis on everyone having something to contribute, even the old and the very young, seems like solid Soviet stuff, but there is an unexpectedly anti-establishment note to the proceedings, as Sedych and his comrades defy the over-cautious powers that be in the name of science and adventure. Oh well- one of the reasons I watch these old and obscure films is to be surprised, and I suppose it’s only natural that some of these surprises should be more surprising than others.

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I have an embarrassing and possibly hard-to-credit confession to make: I have a tendency to get some of these 60s and 70s apocalyptic SF movies jumbled up in my head. I think this is partly the fault of the writers, who could have been a big more imaginative in their titling sometimes: the names of these things are a bit formulaic. Following the success of The Day the Earth Stood Still, we end up with The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and a bit after that The Day the Sky Exploded (I suppose you could also add The Day of the Triffids to the list, though that’s not quite the same thing, of course). For a long time I thought there was another film entitled The Day the Earth Cracked Open, but this is not actually true; the film in question actually trades under the name Crack in the World. I suspect I was getting The Day the Earth Caught Fire mixed up with the Hammer project When the Earth Cracked Open, which is no small achievement considering the latter film was never even made.

I should know better, for Crack in the World enjoys outstanding sci-fi B-movie credentials. Director Andrew Marton may not have much form in the genre, but the cast list scores highly on the Rocky Horror opening number bing-o-meter, with Dana Andrews and Janette Scott playing the two leads. Scott’s Day of the Triffids co-star, Kieron Moore, also turns up; this probably isn’t a coincidence as the two films are from the same producers (one of whom, Philip Yordan, surely deserves more recognition within the fantasy considering he contributed to the scripts of The Time Machine, Horror Express, and Psychomania, amongst others). Art direction is handled by Eugene Lourie, who directed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Behemoth the Sea Monster and Gorgo, which might possibly lead you to expect a different kind of film to what this is.

We get underway with a delegation of important folk trundling across the African savannah in jeeps. Apparently we are in Tanganyika (Tanzania these days); natives with spears look on gravely as the jeeps go by, but make no other contribution to the film (which was actually made in Spain anyway). Soon enough everyone arrives at a remote scientific outpost where a big derrick, of sorts, has been put up. There to greet the important folk is Maggie (Scott), who is married to the boss, Sorenson (Andrews). Sorenson can’t be there as he is busy getting secret treatment for secret Movie Cancer, but Maggie shows them around until he turns up.

This visit has been thoughtfully timed to deliver maximum exposition in the most discreet way. We, and the important folk, learn that Sorenson has been drilling through the Earth’s crust in search of a new source of geothermal power, but the last bit of crust has proved to be unexpectedly resilient and the plan, which he needs the important folk to assent to, is to detonate an atomic bomb at the bottom of the shaft to make the final breakthrough. Sorenson’s demonstration is very good in the visual aid department (in fact, all the pseudo-scientific bits in this film are very carefully and vividly explained; it’s just a shame much of the actually science is deeply iffy), even when it comes to the theories of his youthful rival Ted Rampion (what the hell kind of name is that for a sci-fi B-movie lead character?). Ted’s concern is that multiple nuclear tests have already fractured the crust and one more big blast will have dire consequences for the integrity of the planet. Ted’s ideas make a lot of sense, even when it’s Sorenson explaining them, but you know he’s going to be ignored as there’ll be no story otherwise.

Well, the important folk say yes, of course, and Ted (Moore) resigns in a huff, though not before we have a few scenes sketching out the simmering love triangle between the three leads. Ted goes off to London to try and persuade the important folk to change their decision, while Sorenson goes full speed ahead with the insertion of the bomb. There is a lovely hokey quality to the way that the bomb is sent down the shaft, attached to a missile with its engines blazing even though it’s going straight down; presumably gravity just wouldn’t do the job quick enough.

Everything seems to go well, with magma spouting out of the borehole, but it soon becomes apparent that Ted was right and Sorenson was an insane, hubristic fool; the Earth’s crust has indeed been severely sundered by the blast, which hit a pocket of subterranean hydrogen that magnified its intensity several-fold. Now a ravening fault is opening up, heading eastward across the Indian ocean at over seventy miles a day, causing massive earthquakes wherever it goes. If the crack circumnavigates the Earth, the enormous pressure of the core will cause the planet to split in two – the scientists had better get their thinking caps on!

You can kind of recognise Crack in the World as a sort of remote ancestor of the kind of films Roland Emmerich has made such a success of – outrageous sci-fi disaster movies, with enormous property damage in the background and trite human-interest melodrama going on closer to the camera. The main problem with this is the simple fact that Crack was made in 1965, for a budget of less than a million dollars. The special effects, such as they are, are not too bad in a slightly sub-Gerry Anderson way, but for the most part the film steers clear of showing the immense devastation we are assured the crack is causing: characters just get told about it over the phone or radio. As a result this feels like an oddly bloodless calamity until quite close to the end of the film.

The whole thing would indeed feel like an extended episode of Thunderbirds were it not for the melodrama subplot. It has to be said that while this is also quite hokey, the characterisation in this film is unexpectedly solid and intelligently handled – the multiple layers of rivalry between Sorenson and Ted do inform the plot, while Sorenson’s Movie Cancer isn’t just a plot device: his desperation to complete his life’s work while he still can is one of the things driving him to ignore Ted’s concerns. Janette Scott, on the other hand, just gets to be decorative and concerned about the two guys; she is also issued with one of those costumes which instantly becomes very fragile once the climax of the film arrives and she finds herself in actual jeopardy.

The film is a bit dry and earnest, and could probably use a few more funny lines, but it moves along well despite the limitations of the special effects and the slightly preposterous science – the further you get into the film, the dafter the science gets. Still, the climax is well-mounted, for all it is over-the-top, and the three leads do good work with the material they are issued. The overall theme of ‘don’t let scientists mess about with A-bombs’ is hardly original, and it doesn’t grip or convince in anything like the same manner as The Day the Earth Caught Fire, but this is a decent mid-range sci-fi movie by 1960s standards.

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As I have suggested before, most western viewers’ exposure to Russian SF cinema is limited to the considerable but imposing films of Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically Solaris and Stalker. This is obviously far from ideal, not least because Tarkovsky himself was no fan of genre as a concept, and the fact that Solaris contained so many conventions of the SF genre meant that it was his least favourite of his own films. Stalker, certainly, shuffles backwards into the SF genre, ending up there because it resembles anything else even less. Russian SF movies did not begin and end with Andrei Tarkovsky – so what do some of the others look like?

Marek Piestrak’s The Inquest of Pilot Pirx was released in 1979, the same year as Stalker, and features one of the actors from that film; it also shares a sort of connection with Solaris, as both films are based on stories by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (I should mention that while this is a Soviet film, it is technically a Polish-Russian co-production). One should always be wary of speculating based on too little evidence, but one wonders if the late 70s SF boom extended behind the iron curtain?

Certainly much of Inquest suggests that its makers were aware of what was going on in western SF films. It opens in what looks like some kind of laboratory, with technicians in ‘clean’ suits working on what look very much like parts of human-like robots – androids, in other words. We are clearly in the same kind of narrative territory as Westworld, although the film (like many others) seems a bit unclear about the nature of its synthetic humans – on the one hand, we are told that the androids are so similar to people that only detailed medical tests can identify them; on the other, it is suggested that if you cut one of them open bits of wire and plastic fall out.

Perhaps the first big surprise of the film comes when it is revealed that the android construction facility is in the United States (or so it is heavily suggested), although everybody still speaks Russian there (in the same way that Russian characters in Bond films speak English to each other). Given SF often functions as a critical or satiric commentary on the society that produced it, one wonders if the authorities insisted that the USSR not be featured in the film? (Another possible parallel with Stalker, which had dialogue added to it to make it clear the film was not set in Russia.) We see a meeting between the android construction company and people from the UN, discussing a new space mission – the title character, Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitsky) is chosen, mainly for his good moral character, although the android makers are not very happy about this.

Soon enough Pirx meets up with someone from UNESCO who explains the job they want him to do: androids (‘non-linears’ in the film’s parlance) are on the verge of going into mass production, and could potentially have a major impact on society. However, before this can happen, the authorities are going to have a little test – there will be a mission to Jupiter, with the ship crewed by a mixture of humans and androids, to see which perform better under the stresses of the flight. The twist is that Pirx will not be told which of his men is organic and which is not, and they are under orders not to tell him. Which could prove awkward, if one of the androids should turn out to be mad and decide to try and kill all the human crew…

This is not an especially long film and one of the problems with it is that the first half of it is resolutely earthbound, taking place in a variety of offices, factories, streets – there’s even a glimpse of a branch of McDonalds. This is fairly drab stuff, it must be said, only marginally recognisable as SF, and the pace of it is leisurely, to say the least. Much of it concerns a cack-handed attempt by the android builders to assassinate Pirx so he can be replaced by someone more sympathetic to their agenda: this is pure filler, not informing the second half of the film at all.

The second half of Inquest is at least easily obviously a science fiction film, as Pirx and his crew set off into deep space to carry out their mission. Again, parallels with western SF are almost inescapable – we are in the same kind of territory as Alien and Blade Runner (although, given the rather primitive special effects and model-work, some people may be more reminded of Blake’s 7). It soon becomes apparent that someone on the ship is up to no good and planning the failure of the mission, although who it is remains a mystery (the film achieves this through the somewhat awkward expedient of having the traitor shuffle around with his back to the camera so his face cannot be seen). Pirx, rather in defiance of his orders, sets out to figure out who is who, or more accurately what, amongst his crew – some of whom, such as ship’s doctor Nowak (Alexander Kaidanovsky, the stalker himself), and pilot Calder (Zbigniew Lesien), happily inform him without needing much pressing – but can they be trusted to tell the truth?

Much potential here for tension and paranoia, of course, along with all the jeopardy of a deep-space mission, but unfortunately it mostly goes unrealised. There are many dour discussions about what’s going on, along with some abstract talk about the nature of what it means to be human (or an android) – at one point it seems like Pirx has reached the conclusion that all androids will necessarily be atheists, and starts asking members of the crew what their religious beliefs are. The conclusion, one of the few things recognisably derived from the original Lem story, is that the main difference between man and machine is that man is fallible, but that fallibility itself can be a virtue under some circumstances. It’s an interesting idea, but the problem with Inquest is that it fails to dramatise it in a consistently engaging way. Too much of this film is slow and talky, with a meandering and underpowered story.

Much of The Inquest of Pilot Pirx is heavy-going, unengaging stuff. It makes an interesting contrast to the more lightweight SF action-adventure films being made in Europe and America at around the same time, and it curious to see the parallels in how it handles the same kind of material and ideas. But as a film in its own right, it’s hard to get particularly excited about: it has a certain novelty value, obviously, but not much more.

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