The Planet of Storms: lowbrow 1960’s Soviet sci-fi film with high production values and slight subtext

Pavel Klushantsev, “Planeta Bur’ ” aka “The Planet of Storms” (1962)

In the early 1960’s Soviet space exploration was focussed on sending probes and eventually manned spacecraft to the planet Venus and this little B-grade number was commissioned by Soviet film authorities from Pavel Klushantsev who rose to fame with his 1958 science education film “Road to the Stars” which was a mix of fact and fictional speculation of future space travel and exploration. “Planeta Bur’ ” is the only full-length feature Klushantsev made. With his background in special effects engineering, it’s no surprise that the film has excellent production values with advanced special effects simulating a volcano explosion with lava flow and credible background sets of an alien world. The robot in the film has a very technical design though by Western standards of the time it must have looked quite clumsy and comic. Much more impressive is the flying passenger craft, complete with see-through glass shields that double for protection and as entry/exit hatches, which travels across land and sea. Not through sea as the cosmonauts later discover when their little flyer is forced into the water.

Shame then that the plot is very comic-cartoon stuff with characters that are essentially clones of one another in spirit if not in looks. Three spacecraft are on their way to Venus when a stray meteorite comes and blasts one of them into smithereens. The crews of the other ships are very depressed at the disaster but continue onto Venus nevertheless. The crew of one ship land on Venus and begin exploring with their robot John (not “Ivan” perhaps?) but lose contact with the crew of the other ship so they too must descend in a rocket and land to find the lost men while a lone crewmember – the lone woman on the mission – pilots the main craft. While she whiles away her time floating about (literally), the men contend with hydra-like vegetation, bipedal reptilian swamp monsters, an octopus, a pterodactyl and a dinosaur relic to find their companions and explore the planet for signs of life and maybe intelligent life.

Yep, it’s that sort of comic-book sci-fi movie! – except the fauna and flora don’t put up much of a fight and wisely flee when the cosmonauts use shotguns or knives on them. In those days, AK-47s were still limited to the Soviet Army. The men’s real enemy turns out to be John the robot which after being doused by an unexpected downpour of rain (presumably acid) goes demented: it proposes a plan to build a concrete highway across the planet and calculates the cost of construction in terms only Wall Street bankers might understand; it then expounds on creating a world government with itself as prime minister. Talk about having prescience! Later the tinpot tyrant baulks at carrying its human companions, ill though they are with fever, through a river of hot lava and prepares to let them deep-fry; in the nick of time, the crew from the other spacecraft arrive to rescue the men and leave the rebel robot to sizzle alone. Thus a sneaky attempt to impose capitalism on an ideologically and politically innocent planet is thwarted.

There is a hilarious subtext about gender relations: the cosmonauts criticise their lone female crew-member Masha (Khyunna Ignatova) among themselves for violating HQ instructions and leaving the main orbit around Venus to try to rescue them, saying that robots have greater powers of thinking than women do. At the same time the men search for signs of intelligent life and find none, though they find evidence enough that a civilisation once existed on Venus. On renewing radio contact with Masha, the men prepare to meet her ship: after they have blasted away from Venus, intelligent life emerges from its hiding place – in a skilfully prepared camera shot focussing on a pond – and though appearing upside-down in the pond reflection it clearly looks female! Brief moments where the cosmonauts ponder on the destiny of humans and intelligent life generally to travel into space and on how civilisation must have come to Venus appear here and there.

For a pulpy sci-fi flick of its type, “Planet …” clearly emphasises the co-operation and camaraderie among the cosmonauts and their determination to succeed and save their companions against what look like despairingly insurmountable odds. Thankfully the local wildlife accept the cosmonauts as part of their furniture – which animals in real life might well do once they’ve got over the initial shock of seeing, hearing and smelling human intruders – and the really aggressive types are the pot plants with their woody tentacles. The swamp lizard beings briefly defend their territory but once the action moves away from the mud pools, they appear no more. Perhaps the idea of active and voracious plants and rather passive animals appealed to the script writers – it certainly parallels the gender reversal subtext. The film is not stridently propagandistic and this reviewer’s impression is that Klushantsev fought to keep as much scientific veracity and a spirit of co-operation among the crew members (who are a mixed Soviet-American bunch) as he could in the plot and the characterisation. The actors do what they can with the script which requires them to be heroic and straight-faced and to spout lines they might have laughed at most of the time.

Overall this is an entertaining piece that shows the kind of technically sophisticated science fiction movie that film studios in the Soviet Union were capable of making in the early 1960’s. Still with regard to plot and message, “Planeta …” had to cater for most levels of taste and knowledge and pass muster with government authorities. The safe way out then was to produce something that was straightforward and heroic if somewhat lowbrow with just a hint of a politically innocuous subtext for some perceptive people to chew over.

Aelita, Queen of Mars: a multi-plot story with a moral about living in fantasy versus living in reality

Yakov Protazanov, “Aelita, Queen of Mars” (1924)

This silent Soviet film from the mid-1920’s can be seen in nine parts on Youtube.com thanks to contributor Ishexan. Most current interest in the movie focusses on its sci-fi sub-plot of a trip that three Earthmen make to Mars where they are promptly embroiled in Martian politics and one of them, a revolutionary called Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), inspires the oppressed Martian workers to rebel against their despotic king and replace him with his daughter who is equally tyrannical. This sub-plot is part of a broad melodrama about an engineer called Los (Nikolai Tsereteli) who fluctuates between an erotic fantasy life revolving around an exotic aristocrat woman who worships him from afar and his real life in which his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), neglected by him, has an affair with a rich foreigner, Ehrlich (Pavel Pol).

Los’s fantasy about the woman Aelita (Yulia Solntseva) begins when he and his colleague Spiridonov (Tsereteli again) receive mysterious radio transmissions from afar which can’t be translated into Russian and someone in their department jokingly suggests the messages might be from Mars. Mars is a place where rich folks like Aelita and her dad King Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) can spy on the affairs of other planets on a special TV made of geometric shapes and squiggly wires powered by Martian planetary energy harnessed by Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the planet’s chief scientist and guardian of radiant energy. Poor Martian folks on the other hand must labour in the labyrinthine dungeons of Mars and there’s a rotating roster in which one-third of the workforce goes to sleep in deep freeze chambers when the available work dwindles. Good thing the capitalists on Earth never heard of that idea! Most of the movie’s running time flits from Los’s work ,which among other things involves volunteer work on an engineering project in the Soviet Far East and in his spare time constructing a spaceship capable of flying to Mars with Spiridonov, to Natasha working at a refugee centre, then an orphanage, and flirting with Ehrlich, to other sub-plots which include Gusev’s on-again/off-again relationship with his wife and an investigation of Natasha’s shotgun murder by the comically inept detective Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky). There is also a sub-plot that focusses on one man’s attempt to cheat on the food-rationing system used in Moscow which calls audiences’ attention to the economic and social plight of ordinary people in Russia at the time the film was made.

All this means that “Aelita …” can be a bewildering experience for first-time viewers unfamiliar with the immediate post-1917 situation in the Soviet Union before Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920’s. Repeating viewings and a foreknowledge of the film’s plot and themes will be necessary for some viewers to understand and tease out the various sub-plots. Several sub-plots are Los’s daydreams which the film deliberately doesn’t separate from what happens to the engineer in real life so the narrative, and in particular the ending, can be very confusing to watch. A pro-Communist / anti-capitalist message is present in the movie but director Protazanov’s treatment of it is very ambiguous: Gusev has second thoughts about allowing Aelita to assume leadership of the Martian proletariat and his fears are well-founded. This particular moment in the film serves perhaps as a warning of what could happen to the Soviet government, that it might fall into a similar autocratic style of government as the previous Tsarist government: a prophetic message indeed.

Los realises his fantasy about Aelita comes to nothing but chaos, which might make viewers wonder whether it really is a fantasy that he has or something that actually happened to him. Fantasy women who hero-worship you don’t usually try to co-opt you into their own nefarious schemes, do they? He decides that his goal in life is to be with Natasha, who miraculously is alive despite having been shot at close range multiple times earlier in the film, and work with her for the reconstruction of their country. Natasha for her part is willing to return to Los and give up Ehrlich. The film’s message is that inner psychological rebirth is as important as political, social and economic rebirth if people are to co-operate and fulfill the goals of socialist revolution. Fantasising about flying to Mars as a way of escaping humdrum reality and the work involved in maintaining a marriage (and by extension, maintaining a community, especially a new revolutionary community) certainly won’t help to bring about equality and prosperity for everyone.

The film’s production values are very impressive: in particular the Martian sets, influenced by the Russian avantgarde art movement Constructivism with its emphasis on abstract geometric shapes and figures, look very futuristic and in some scenes are monumental. The make-up and costume design for the actors playing the Martians are similarly abstract and angular though the headgear looks comic. The style of acting varies in keeping with the plot and themes: generally the Earthlings move and act in a natural way while the Martians, lacking human emotion, have a stilted and robotic style of behaving. Aelita especially seems a child-like and petulant aritstocrat compared to proletarian Natasha who is portrayed as a warm and caring, if rather flighty, young woman. The editing helps here too, cutting from Aelita at her leisure watching Los on her TV or lounging about to Natasha cooking stew and scrubbing wet clothes. Hmm, what does it say about Los and his attitude towards women and social class that Aelita is a naive fantasy ideal that turns dangerous and has to be killed off while the neglected Natasha is ready to offer him love and support if only he would pay more attention to her and their marriage?

Ultimately for most people the main value of “Aelita …” will be in its sets and design but for students of propaganda and Soviet history, the film has a great deal to say about the difference between fantasy and reality. The lesson is aimed as much at idealists and would-be revolutionaries as for those still wedded to capitalist ways of thinking.

Assassin of Youth: “educational” soap opera that titillates with flashes of sordid behaviour

Elmer Clifton, “Assassin of Youth” (1937)

It’s a laughable anti-marijuana screed but “Assassin of Youth” at least has a comic drama going for it. A reporter, Art Brighton (Arthur Gardiner), goes undercover in a small US town to investigate a gang of marijuana dealers intent on corrupting the teenagers there. In particular these fiendish fellas are in cahoots with a local woman Linda Clayton (Fay McKenzie) who wants to discredit her cousin Joan Barry (Luana Walters) so that the girl can’t claim her inheritance of money from her grandmother’s will, subject to a morals clause, and the cash will go to Linda and her husband instead. The way Linda will discredit Joan is to feed her with marijuana through smoking and cakes, encouraging the lass to misbehave at wild parties and get involved with strange folks of dubious moral reputation. Joan falls for every ploy and scheme Linda can dream up, sullying her reputation as a good girl until there’s more mud clinging to her than little sister Margery who at least attempts to murder another girl at a party. Brighton conceives a daring plan that will get Joan off the hook and incriminate Linda and the no-good drug dealers she’s getting the grass from but the police interfere, Joan ends up in the slammer, Brighton himself is whisked back to the office by his employer and the reading of the will happens to take place the next day. Can Brighton get back to town in time to stop Joan from being deprived of her inheritance and the money going to her undeserving cousin?

Essentially a soap opera, the film is slow for much of its running time: one after the other, there are several parties where the kids do little more scandalous than get Joan bathing nude in a lake (while Linda is burning her clothes), smoke pot, dance a lot and keel over from the effects of the drug. There’s a diversion into a film screened by Brighton’s employer for the reporter’s benefit in which a narrator bangs on about the history of marijuana, its early uses and its current evil effects on young vulnerable people. Action perks up when Brighton hatches his bold plan and gets Joan to co-operate. Plenty of comedy is provided by local milkbar owner, “Pop” Brady (Earle Dwire), who hires Brighton in his undercover disguise and who exposes the local gossip Henrietta (Fern Emmett) as having been less than snow-white virginal herself as a teenager and the judge (Henry Roquemore) as the man who might have deflowered her all those years ago, at the court hearing. The acting is competent enough for the film’s requirements; McKenzie as the glamour-puss blonde schemer and Dwire, who creates havoc in the court-room to delay the hearing so that Brighton can get there in time, are the most memorable actors. Production values are quite bad with some scenes hard to make out due to poor lighting conditions at the time, and the quality of the film stock used and the way it has aged do not help either.

Modern audiences will get a chuckle out of the shock-horror tactics used by Clifton to hammer home the anti-marijuana message. All kinds of evil, deviant behaviour like skinny-dipping in a lake at nights, trying to knife a girl smooching with your boyfriend, and falling into a coma and being at death’s door are detailed to the extent that any real side-effects cannabis might have become invisible. The snooty pedant in me sniffs that the kids’ behaviour is due to being in a group free from adult restraint in environments where small-town customs and traditions no longer matter.  It seems very likely that audiences in the 1930’s didn’t take this film seriously and simply watched it for the melodrama with its promise of nude bathing, youngsters imbibing alcohol, female violence and a teenage girl sleeping with a strange man in a hotel room. In those days of strict censorship and alcohol prohibition in the US, film-makers there wanting to titillate audiences with racy stories that would get past the censors made so-called “educational” films about the dangers of drugs or sexual intercourse outside marriage and this may well have been Clifton’s intention.

Worth watching at least for the attitudes and social mores of the period in relation to drug addiction and teenage freedom and sexuality, and how American society, in particular small-town society, might have dealt with issues affecting adolescents. Some aspects of American youth culture and fashion may interest the social historian in some viewers. Apart from this, don’t expect  much in the way of fine acting, cinematography or direction – just sit back and enjoy the fluff.