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From the Tsars to the Stars: Unknown Treasures of Soviet and Russian Sci Fi Cinema
Emily Gertz, 16 Aug 06

planetofstorms.jpgA double feature in a dark movie theatre is my idea of a great way to lose a fine summer Saturday afternoon. Last weekend I got to indulge while also taking in how creative minds of a world superpower once imagined the future, at the Russian Fantastik series now showing at the Walter Reade Theatre in New York City. This festival of fantasy and science fiction films -- sponsored the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Seagull Films -- features gems of Russian fantastic filmmaking that few but the most ardent fans have seen outside of the Soviet Union or Russia.

Pavel Klushantsev's 1961 imagining of a voyage to Venus, Planet of Storms, is a cold-war era space epic on par with American classics like Forbidden Planet. Three ships of soulful cosmonauts journey to Venus, accompanied by a cold American scientist and the robot he believes to be superior to human beings. Although the hostile plants and animals (including a pterodactyl!) that the space travelers encounter planetside are high camp, Planet of Storms portrays space flight with a remarkable realism for the time. It should be no surprise that party-line communitarian optimism dominates the plot, but director Klushantsev clearly had his own goals for the film, including beautiful visions of interplanetary travel. *
(A complex rights situation seems to have kept Planet of Storms from wider circulation in its original format; famed American low-budget film impresario Roger Corman bought the rights and recut parts of it into three of his own productions between 1965 and 1968.)

tothestarsbyhardways2.jpgJump ahead two decades to To the Stars by Hard Ways, a 1981 space opera that begins with the Starship Pushkin finding a deep space wreck containing one lone survivor, the ethereal Neeya and returning with her to Earth. It's visually stunning, with enough plotting for five movies -- from Neeya's struggle to remember her past and fit in with the "real" humans, to the problematic ethics of creating artificial humaniods to save Neeya's severely polluted home planet of Dessa, to one Dessan entrepreneur's greed as he corners the market in breathable air and resells it at a heavy premium. The clearest moral lesson is scorn for the failure of the Dessans to overcome internal religious and political divisions in order to save their contaminated planet -- and avoid reliance on outsiders from Earth to do it for them. If you have even a passing familiarity with Soviet culture, it won't be hard to pick up on the critiques of both communism and capitalism, over-emphasis of the group's needs as well as hyper-individualism. It's no wonder that To the Stars was a teen cult classic in the USSR.

From the Tsars to the Stars runs through August 24. Hopefully sponsor Seagull Films -- which was instrumental in preserving some of the movies in this series -- will find a way to bring it to other cities, and to get some of the movies not already digitized onto DVD.

* 10:06 pm ET: Klushantsev's earlier film, 1958's Road to the Stars (sadly not part of the Russian Fantastik series) was a special-effects milestone that combined a documentary on the history of rocket science with the basics of astrophysics and fantastic extrapolative storytelling the future of interplanetary space exploration -- led by noble cosmonauts, natch. Stanley Kubrick is known to have drawn on it extensively for many signature images in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Speaking of old science fiction films, the British film The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) is highly recommended. Probably the best science fiction film about global climate change. It's a film for grownups, with a central strength being its accurate portrayal of the personalities and politics in a working newsroom of the period. The shoestring budget shows in some obviously stock footage, but the film makers accomplished some impressive special effects with a couple thousand dollars and a garage studio.

Posted by: TR on 17 Aug 06

Only wish I'd known about this earlier. Hopefully it will rain this weekend and give me an excuse to stay in the theater. Thanks!

Posted by: Brandon Keim on 17 Aug 06

Kinda kewl, but... Is it worldchanging?

Posted by: Paul Mitchum on 18 Aug 06

Oy, the whole "but ... Is it worldchanging" question again.

We human beings best grasp the lessons we need to learn if the lessons are presented as a story. To that end, a well told science fiction story can be one of the most important means we have of changing the world. Science fiction primes the mind to limitless possibilities, and helps to spread ideas that would be unpalatable or even censored if they were presented "straight". (Especially in the case of these movies -- would a communist government allow a critique of communist heavy industry any other way?)

Opening our eyes to new ways to present ideas, understanding another culture's hopes and dreams (and fears) for the future, realizing that "the enemy" is more like us than we realize -- all of that is worldchanging.

At least, it is if your mind is open to it.

Posted by: Patrick Di Justo on 19 Aug 06

Thank you, Patrick. I'll just quote you from now on when this chestnut of a question comes up again, if that's okay!

The weather's beautiful hereabouts, but I hope you'll make it to at least one Russian Fantastika screening, Brandon.

Good call on The Day the Earth Caught Fire. So many sf films from the 50s through the 70s have powerful ecological themes -- makes sense in the context of the times, when (for one thing) the modern environmental movement was gathering momentum in popular and political culture. Creaky effects -- I can live with that.

Actually, one unexpectedly fun aspect of these repertory screenings in New York -- aside from the simple joy of getting to see the movies on the big screen, and sometimes in restored condition -- is that audiences here are generally willing to suspend their 21st century standards for special effects and really take the movies and their visual accomlishments in their original spirit.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 19 Aug 06

If asking whether or how something offered here really is world-changing has become an 'old chestnut,' then this 'blog has jumped the shark, and is just a place for nerdy people to talk about nerdy green wonkishness without any kind of threshhold to overcome.

I'd like to think that hasn't happened.

As far as the efficacy of science fiction to expand minds: Sure. No doubt.

But you know what else? Stories stay stories. They can provide a framework for understanding an overwhelming truth, and they can provide a cushion for beginning to understand that truth within the framework. But then they give us an option: We can call it a story. We can call it science fiction, a work of imagination having nothing to do with our world. That's intrinsic to the cushion provided by fiction.

That's how, for instance, the anti-enviromental folks in this country reacted to 'Day After Tomorrow,' which this 'blog rated as worldchanging. They just said, "Well, it's a fantasy about that global warming thing those liberals keep talking about..." And it's how Michael Crichton won this journalism award from the AAPG.

I don't mean to crap on sci-fi or fiction in general, because I enjoy a lot of it, and appreciate the messages sometimes. Even some of Crichton's. It's just that a 1981 Russian space opera about a doomed alien planet doesn't rate as worldchaning, as far as I'm concerned. No matter how alluring that white-haired woman may be. :-)

Posted by: Paul Mitchum on 20 Aug 06

I was being deliberately, if mildly, provocative with the term "old chestnut," so I guess I get what's coming to me for that rhetorical flourish! However, this "debate" on the insignificance of art and creativity relative to action/activism is one I've been encountering my entire adult life.

Tranformations of a culture begin in part and endure through exploring them in creative and artistic frameworks, including telling stories in the many ways we have to do that. If we were over and done with the mindset that feels industrialization trumps environmental health (one of the human-not "alien" - norms criticized in "To the Stars") I guess we could say that it's no longer much of a worldchanger. But clearly we're not. And while the cold war and the hegemony of the Soviet Union, and their impact on huge swaths of the Earth and its people (and other living creatures), may seem like ancient history in this era, the repercussions of those phenomena are still playing out in the physical world.

So, I believe that bringing to light on Worldchanging some creative works that offer us insight into how Soviets expressed discontent with their own political and social culture, as well as hopes for the future, offers up the opportunity for us to gain insights into the present that could help us change the world for the better -- perhaps by creating new works for this era that offer up similarly relevant critiques in ways that people are more likely to enjoy and absorb than essays on the op-ed page or books on the non-fiction list.

I reject the instrumentalist mindset which suggests that because something is a work of the imagination, it is less worthy of consideration as an act of transformation than a work involving science, laws, medicine or industry. If anything, I ought to be writing at least as much about this stuff on Worldchanging as I do about ecosystems or mobile phones or cures for malaria.

As for the ways in which those we're not sympathetic to turn "our" stories to their own ends, or use the rubric of "it's only fiction" to try and discount important truths being expressed through fiction, 'twas ever thus.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was only fiction. Dr. Strangelove was only fiction. And they endure into the 21st century as important works of human creativity, while American slavery and the US-USSR nuclear arms race are history.

As for Mr. Crighton, I thank him for helping to create ER, a tv show that's given me many hours of relaxing popcult satisfaction over the years. And I'd suggest not taking very seriously awards offered for quality journalism by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 21 Aug 06



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