The Cathedral: search for life’s purpose and oneness with God isn’t fulfilling in this little film

Tomasz Baginski, “The Cathedral” / “Katedra” (2002)

It’s a short film – less than seven minutes – created entirely with 3D computer animation but Baginski’s “The Cathedral” is beautiful and stunning visually while vague and weak on plot and character. A lone pilgrim has come from afar to a huge cathedral structure on a barren planet at the far edge of the universe. What quest brought him here is unknown as the film lacks spoken-word monologue or dialogue. He gazes around him as he walks through the vast edifice of intertwined trunks and branches through which human faces and statues can be seen. As he passes the statues and arrives at the edge of a cliff, at which the cathedral stops repeating its structure and gapes, as if in reverent awe at the abyss below, the focus discreetly shifts to some of the statues’ faces close-up and we see slight twitches, a knowing look, a secret smile, an expression of pain and sorrow, in these portraits.

Those of us who’ve seen numerous science fiction horror films can guess what happens to the pilgrim once the sun rises and casts its rays over the unfinished cathedral and the man himself. This reviewer wasn’t surprised; it was rather like watching that special 4-episode Doctor Who adventure “The Five Doctors” in which a renegade Time Lord seeks immortality and has his wish granted. Very likely the pilgrim’s quest was more about coming closer to God or finding inner peace and purpose to his life. The reply is that of humankind overall searching for its ultimate destiny in the universe with the pilgrim playing just one more part in his people’s outreach to the infinite: the pilgrim’s quest is the same as humanity’s quest and ditto for his purpose in life. As to whether the pilgrim was asking the right question in the first place and got an answer he didn’t expect or want or was led on by his beliefs and upbringing to find God and peace, only to discover too late that he’d been deluded all along or even tricked, viewers will have to decide for themselves. A sly black humour may be at work here and there is a paradox too: to reach God, to know our ultimate destiny as individuals and as members of a collective, must we submit to enslavement to find freedom?

At least the animation is  elegant and beautiful, majestic in parts, and has a slightly sinister Gothic look to it. Colours are dark and gloomy and the atmosphere is creepy. Some viewers who know the English doom metal band Cathedral may find the style of animation reminiscent of that group’s album covers of fantasy art by Dave Patchett. The film cathedral is an organic structure of inter-twined trunks and branches: tall, imposing, commanding respect, yet severe and not at all bulky. Huge spaces within the building emphasise the barrenness of the world around and highlight the pilgrim’s existential enquiry. The film spends little time on its protagonist and doesn’t encourage much viewer sympathy for him: this is the major weakness of “The Cathedral”. Viewers have to guess what he’s come to the cathedral for and work out from his behaviour and actions at the edge of the cliff his inner anguish and turmoil and loss of faith and hope. Perhaps he realises what’s in store for him but doesn’t know what to do. When his purpose is achieved, viewers catch a brief glimpse of his face, frozen in calm, but the moment may pass too quickly for viewers to see whether this is the calm of inner peace or of the resignation that comes with being an immortal vegetable.

The 1970s-styled music soundtrack is a drawback to the film: the melodramatic orchestral music doesn’t gel well with the disco beats and the result doesn’t suit the film’s style. Atmosphere is diluted and the film appears less sinister than it should. This is one occcasion where no music or very minimal, unobtrusive music, perhaps of an ambient nature, is called for.

If it had been a bit longer to allow for greater character development and to immerse the viewer more into its dark atmosphere and strange, half-live / half-dead structure, “The Cathedral” would have been a great little film about the quest for immortality, unity with God, the relationship of the individual to the community of humankind and the nature of faith and religion.

 

Dead Man’s Letters: post-apocalyptic dystopia is depressive in style and tone but holds out hope for humanity

Konstantin Lopushansky, “Dead Man’s Letters” / “Pisma myortvogo cheloveka” (1986)

Depressive in tone but with a hopeful optimism at its end, this film explores how human beings might survive the immediate aftermath of a nuclear bomb explosion that wipes out entire cities and all life above ground and renders the physical environment sterile and toxic. In such a setting people live without hope and watch one another disintegrate emotionally and mentally as well as physicially. The bare and patchy plot centres around a physicist huddled with a few other survivors in a bunker beneath a museum after such a wipe-out. The physicist tends to his wife, dying from radiation sickness, and composes letters to their young son who was separated from them during the explosion and the chaos that followed, and is now missing. One day while searching for the boy and other survivors, the physicist meets a group of orphaned children, all traumatised by the explosion, and arranges for them all to go to a so-called Central Bunker where they might be cared for by government doctors. Martial law and a strict curfew have been imposed across the country and the physicist risks his life to get medicine for his wife; while he’s gone, the wife dies. The remaining survivors in the museum bunker ponder their circumstances and try to cope with various rationalisation strategies. Eventually they’re all ordered to go to the Central Bunker but the physicist elects to remain and moreover takes in the orphans when the Central Bunker rejects them for being sick.

The plot depends heavily on the actors and their environment to convey its message and ideas. The actors have worn, sometimes craggy faces which portray hope, despair, anger and resignation in turns. The interior settings are dark and look cramped with primitive living conditions; exterior settings are dominated by roaring winds, the wreckage of buildings, cars and machines, puddles of toxic water and undecayed bodies. An air of oppression reinforced by helicopter and tank patrols and periodic megaphone announcements adds to the overall feeling of despair and hopelessness. Use of sepia tones in the filmstock emphasises the desolation and wretchedness of life and accentuates the strains of care and surviving on the actors’ faces. Viewers see the details of soil texture, of water that looks like mercury and, in a flooded university library, of the wet pulp of paper and sodden towers of books. One scene in the film appears in shades of blue that highlight the secret and possibly illegal or dangerous work being done by two characters.

The cinematography captures perfectly the small scale of human life in an extraordinary and extreme environment.  It reaches its peak of morose and pessimistic expression in a Christmas scene in which the physicist and his orphans build a Christmas tree out of wire and industrial scrap and light candles on the tree. The camera draws back to show the scene in full: stark in its loneliness but beautiful all the same. It’s like a small beacon of light in a never-ending black night. Viewers sense that the plot has reached its lowest point and from here on, hope may arise; it harks back to the pagan origin of Christmas as a mid-winter festival in which people celebrated the death of the old year and the birth of the new year. What happens to the physicist and the children next underlines this passing-of-the-torch motif.

There are other moments of great beauty in the film: the nuclear disaster itself with its montage of cities on fire and being blown down by huge winds, over which a soprano sings and a child babbles in the background, is a memorable sight; and the orphaned children venturing out into the barren landscape and over the horizon beneath an overcast sky through which thin rays of sun shine is a very beautiful and moving scene. Even the sepia tones themselves lend a kind of golden aura over the actors and the sets as they bring out the harshness and desolation of the lives the characters lead.

A few survivors declaim on the purpose and nature of humanity on Earth and where and how humanity went wrong somewhere so that the nuclear calamity was made possible. People were ambitious and greedy, they reached out and made things they didn’t fully understand, they tried to know too much but lacked the wisdom and insight to control their knowledge and what they did with it … the physicist himself realises the calamity occurred accidentally in a way that’s no-one’s fault. Here is a message about the absurdity and fragility of existence and how one seemingly trivial yet universal event can set off a chain reaction that results in a nation-wide if not global tragedy. One survivor expounds his view that a new dog-eat-dog world without compassion will be built on the remains of the old one. Another survivor praises the achievements of the human species and then commits suicide. At one point in the film, the physicist expresses guilt that his work might have contributed to the nuclear disaster.

In the end, hope is all the physicist has to sustain him: hope that his son is still alive, hope that his wife might survive long enough to see their son, hope that the orphaned children will also survive and help create a new world with new values that won’t end in nuclear catastrophe. The children carry his hope as they trudge away from the museum bunker.

Viewers familar with Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” will recognise many plot, theme, character and technical elements from that film in “Dead Man’s Letters” – Lopushanski assisted on the filming of “Stalker” and the film must have made quite an impression 0n him. Both films can be very depressing to watch but express hope and optimism through children who appear harmed by the catastrophes that cause devastation and suffering to their elders but may have an inner strength and resilience.”Stalker” seems the weightier and more worthy film perhaps because of its deeply immersive nature, the ambiguities that exist within its plot, characters and setting, and the way the plot plays out with characters failing to achieve their goal and losing their faith and hope along the way. In “Dead Man’s Letters”, the plot is barely developed enough to explain in part how characters behave in the way they do. Even so, it’s a thoughtful film with scenes of great beauty and sadness.

 

The Space Voyage: space adventure propaganda piece for kids is a little subversive

Vasily Zhuravlov, “The Space Voyage” / “Kosmicheskiy reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella” (1936)

In the 1930s, the youth branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, usually known by its abbreviation Komsomol, suggested that a film be made to encourage interest in space exploration among young people and this film, which  features as a main character a boy who is a Komsomol member, was the result. Director Zhuravlov had been itching to make this film since the mid-1920s anyway though possibly without the child character. Shot as a silent film with not very many title cards, the film is fairly easy to follow even though on Youtube.com it has no English-language subtitles. An aged scientist, Professor Sedykh (S Komarov), and his assistant Marina (K Moskalenko) decide to blast off into space in their rocket along with a teenage passenger, Andriusha (V Gaponenko) after Sedykh has been in trouble with fellow scientist and bureaucrat Professor Karin (V Kovrigin), the latter having been irate over finding a sleeping rabbit in a small rocket. The unlikely trio fly straight to the moon where they don spacesuits and happily leap about in close to zero-gravity conditions, taking in the sights and exploring the caves they find. Sedykh nearly gets crushed by a rock but apart from that mishap, the three have a good time and send a signal to Earth that they have landed on the moon. That basically is all there is in the way of a plot.

The glory of the film is in its sets and some aspects of the script: Zhuravlov consulted the then-famous rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on the script and other aspects of the film’s production. The scenes in the film in which Sedykh, Marina and Andriusha float and fly about in the spaceship were probably inspired by a suggestion that once a spaceship escapes the pull of Earth’s gravity, its occupants might experience weightlessness. The camera shows the threesome bouncing off walls and windows, and even adopts a first-person viewpoint of flying with quick edits of swaying and swinging aerial shots: hmm, those three need a fair bit of practice to stop crashing into sensitive levers and steering wheels. The scenes on the moon in which the astronauts jump from rock to rock are all animated (with stop-motion animation) to a high quality and look very realistic for the period in which the film was made. Spacesuits have oxygen tubes and tanks attached to them, indicating the level of research and care Zhuravlov took in making the film appear authentic.

The sets themselves will take viewers’ breath away: even the cameraman must have been in awe at the size and clean streamling of the spaceship, around which workers scurry and little trucks drive, and there’s an excellent “virtual tour” shot in which the camera pans slowly around the ship itself while in the hangar. The ship’s interiors look cramped and are filled with panels of levers, steering wheels and gauges. Moscow itself is portrayed as a futuristic planned city dominated by a few skyscrapers here and there and a long rollercoaster-like bridge that reaches for the sky itself. The lunar landscapes, all painted on background boards, almost have the appearance of abstract avantgarde oil paintings with huge white block-shaped boulders draped over by dark shadows, over which the Earth can be seen rising.

Interestingly during take-off, the astronauts are shown wearing special costumes and sitting in liquid-filled chambers. Presumably the liquid absorbs the changes in pressure and any shocks that occur while the ship escapes the Earth’s atmosphere so that, once in space, the astronauts suffer no ill effects. Tsiolkovsky and Zhuravlov sure did think of everything that could have gone wrong and how to solve any potential problems!

As a film aimed at children, “The Space Voyage” includes considerable humour: Karin is prevented by a group of Komsomol children from stopping Sedykh’s flight and has to pretend that he authorised the flight all along; and Sedykh’s wife, in helping her husband to pack his luggage for the trip, realises he has forgotten to take his warm boots so she hurries to the spaceflight centre with them. The prime humorous aspect is that the flight crew includes no young able-bodied adult males whom viewers would expect to perform the action-hero parts; when Sedykh gets into trouble, Marina and Andriusha are the ones who bail him out. A young military man who is Marina’s boyfriend would have gone on board but Marina throws him out after he throws his support behind Karin’s orders.

Though intended as a propaganda piece masquerading as a children’s space adventure, the film’s choice of main characters and the way the first part of its plot plays out are in their own way subversive of official Communist propaganda: Sedykh and Marina defy a bureaucrat’s orders and Andriusha sneaks away from home and boards the spaceship as a stowaway. Sedykh and Marina initially treat Andriusha as just a kid but after he declares that he and his friends stopped Karin from grounding the rocket, the two allow him to explore the moon’s caves with them. None of them is what NASA or its Soviet equivalent would call “qualified” to be space explorers. When they get back home, they find they are forgiven for their disobedience. Ah, if only real life had been as kind to the film as the fictional bureaucrats were to the trio … “The Space Voyage” was pulled from cinemas in 1936 as the animated scenes of jumping astronauts were judged by government censors to be frivolous and was neglected for a long time afterwards.

 

 

The Sky Calls: visually striking film that’s low on excitement and high on propaganda with a surprise twist

Mikhail Karyukhov and Alexander Kozyr, “The Sky Calls” / “Nebo Zovyot” (1959)

A visually stunning film about space exploration, “The Sky Calls” was the first in a wave of science fiction movies from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe that deal with space travel in a more or less “hard science”, realist way. Unusually perhaps for a film of its kind, the plot is contained within a framing device of a fantasy conceived by a news reporter, Troyan (S Filimonov), after he meets and interviews rocket scientist Kornev (I Pereverzev) about his work and the possibility of space travel in the near future. In the fantasy Troyan accompanies Kornev and various other scientists on a trip to a space station where Kornev meets among others two visiting Americans, pilot Klark (K Bartsevich) and news reporter Verst (G Tonunts) , who plan to fly to the moon. Kornev later declares he and another man will fly to Mars. The visiting Americans report back to NASA who advise them to change their plans and fly to Mars to beat the Russians. The Americans do so, injuring Kornev’s original pilot, so another man Gordienko (A Shvorin) accompanies Kornev instead on the ship Rodina. On the way there, the Russians receive an SOS: the Americans in their ship Typhoon have been hit by a meteor shower which has forced the craft into a trajectory into the sun. The Rodina crew rescues the Typhoon men but the Russians are unable to continue their Mars mission due to a fuel shortage so they must land on an asteroid, Icarus, and wait for an unmanned refuelling vehicle to arrive from Earth.

Emphasising realism and the work that astronauts might be expected to do in space, the plot disdains action-man heroics and one-upmanship in favour of a moral about how friendship and co-operation triumph over nationalistic rivalry and competition, and that the ultimate purpose of space exploration is to encourage and advance knowledge about the cosmos and benefit human society. Any drama arises from the consequences of the American crew’s haste in flying away from the space station at NASA’s orders. Early in the film Klark admits he once crash-landed a craft – his face has the dints to prove his point – so viewers are aware he’s someone who might take unnecessary risks. Generally the Americans come across as slightly neurotic, impulsive and childish, seeking excitement for its own sake; the Russians are depicted as reliable, calm and level-headed. The differences between the Americans and the Russians extend to their societies as well: American society is about acquisitiveness and seeking cheap sensations to a boppy jazz soundtrack while Russian society is solid and grounded in nature against a soothing and anodyne classical music background. The stereotyping leads to rather wooden acting – even the gung-ho air jockey Klark is hard to take seriously as rash, so stolid is he – and precludes any interesting tension and suspense that would result from character clashes and misunderstandings.

The film’s chief glory is in its exterior and interior sets, particularly the scenes set in space and on Icarus. The Icarus landscapes with their contrasts of red light and black shadows show influences that might have come from 1920’s-era Russian abstract art movements like Rayonism and Constructivism. A shot of the rocket that takes Troyan into outer space might comfortingly remind some Western viewers of the old British marionette series Thunderbirds in its solid detail. Cinematography can be quite good too: there is a wonderful early transition from the lights of night-time Moscow car traffic to winking stars in space to the rocket separating from its launch structures. The science is not exact: there is early mention of “winds” in space and there are scenes of people in spacesuits walking or standing on space station platforms or on the surface of rockets while the craft are clearly moving quickly and one wonders how these structures, massive though they are, can generate a gravitational field sufficiently strong enough to keep a crowd of people from floating away; but apart from these and possibly other slips, the attention to visual detail in the sets, the special effects used and the spooky organ tunes, sort of melodic in an eccentric way that emphasises the organ tone, in a number of scenes are excellent.

Acting is unremarkable: even the Americans are underplayed though Klark is supposedly a maverick pilot and Verst lacks space-flight experience and understandably panics when the Typhoon veers towards the sun. Pereverzev as Kornev gets the best lines pontificating on the superiority of co-operation over competition and whatever character development exists is invested wholly in Klark’s realisation that Kornev is right and that his natural soul brothers are people like Kornev and Gordienko who have in common with him training, experience and faith in space exploration. It’s to be noted also that all lead and major secondary roles are given to male actors while female actors are relegated to support roles of mothers, wives, medical doctors and space-flight technicians.

Funnily the film doesn’t look dated though the attitudes and values that power the plot and the characterisation are often very traditional even by 1950’s-period standards. The film suggests that the Russian space crew members are morally grounded due to their almost spiritual devotion to their country (note the name of the rocket “Rodina” which is Russian for “Motherland”) and their political and economic system. Friendship and co-operation are favoured as long as people involved defer to the Russians as leaders among them. At least the film is even-handed in the way it treats Klark and Verst as victims of their political and social conditioning and even Kornev, the obvious leader, is a bit fallible in admiring Klark when the latter admits to his early foolhardy action. Klark achieves moral redemption near the film’s end so at least Kornev’s mission, though it has failed to reach Mars, has done something very significant. The goal of the trip ultimately isn’t that important; the journey itself, the struggles along the way, the unexpected reward of seeing a rising Mars from the surface of Icarus and the lessons learned demonstrate that space travel in itself is a wonder and anyone who becomes an astronaut is very privileged indeed.

The framing device of a reporter’s fantasy suggests mild oblique criticism on the film-makers’ part about the role of the media as a propaganda tool in fanning international or other rivalries that strike against the interests of scientists in working together and sharing knowledge and skills. The character of Verst in particular could be viewed as Troyan’s dark twin, trying to pre-empt or hurry the patient and often tiring work of scientists and forcing them into doing dangerous things they would otherwise avoid. There is the suggestion in Troyan’s fantasy and its eventual manifestation as a novel that scientists should be allowed to work at their own pace and that the proper role for journalists in reporting scientific articles is to inspire interest, wonder and support for scientists in the general public.

Fantastic Planet: absorbing animated science fiction film with messages and ideas that are still important

René Laloux, “Fantastic Planet” / “La Planète Sauvage” (1973)

A very absorbing animated science fiction film that superficially looks as if it might have been created for children with a plot that starts out with a human-like baby being adopted by a blue-skinned alien child ten times bigger than the baby in a world that looks like a mix of psychedelic rock album art of the 1970’s and Monty-Python collage-style animation and dark jokes with double entendres. Though as the film progresses, it becomes very clear indeed that several scenes in the film, some of the suggestive animation itself and the plot’s preoccupations are aimed at an older audience, one that, at the time of the film’s release, might have been described as politically and socially liberal and eco-conscious, even counter-cultural or underground. A joint Czech-French production, “Fantastic Planet” lives up to its name in its visual style and creativity if not its story-line or characterisation. Made in 1973, it doesn’t look too dated though the animation is hardly sophisticated by current standards and many scenes are just drawn and coloured-in sketches with the odd moving character going across them.

The plot traces the rise of the human-like Oms from a primitive foraging way of life dominated by ignorance, superstition and near-despotic rule by a few to a progressive society in which the Oms are literate, have mastered science and technological principles sufficiently enough to build and operate spaceships, and can challenge the giant blue-skinned aliens called Draags who regard them as simple and unintelligent. The way in which this turnaround in the Oms’ fortunes occurs is due to one Om called Terr who was adopted as a pet by a young Draag called Tiva. Tiva treats Terr as a plaything and lets him sit with her at lessons which she absorbs through meditation with the help of head-phones but viewers’ overall impression will be that Terr is a household slave / domestic pet completely at the capricious mercy of his mistress. Terr tries to escape often but his collar responds to Tiva’s magnetic bracelet. One day Terr runs away with Tiva’s head-phones and is helped by a wild Om who breaks his collar. The wild Om takes him to her people who eventually adopt him as their own. Terr uses Tiva’s head-phones, which turn out to be a vast repository of Draag knowledge, to educate his new family and in spite of opposition from some of the senior tribal members, the Oms give up those traditions that hampered their progress and kept them inferior to the Draags and embark on a tortuous path that frees them from slavery and repression. They create a new home and force the Draags to respect them so that the two species can co-exist in peace.

The journey towards enlightenment isn’t easy and many Oms are slaughtered along the way when the Draags try to cull their numbers and resort to more desperate and deadly methods, finally deciding to exterminate the little beings. There may be a political allegory here: the Oms might serve as a metaphor for Third World peoples striving for independence and the freedom to determine their own future while the Draags represent those First World elites who prefer the majority of humans to live in corporatised slavery and poverty. Or when we consider the film’s historical and cultural context, the Oms could represent the oppressed Czechs and Slovaks and the Draags their Soviet Russian masters.  There’s also a lesson here about how we humans treat our own pets: Terr is indulged a lot by Tiva but she also forces him to fight other domesticated Oms in battles that are parallels to cock-fighting bouts. The film does an excellent job of demonstrating the complex relationship that exists between the Draags and the Oms: the Draags regard the tame Oms as cute as long as they are obedient, the wild Oms are seen as vermin for breeding too fast and multiplying too quickly.

The Draags possess a sophisticated technology and culture that revolve around constant meditation; the film reveals this meditation to be necessary for their continued survival and propagation of their species, and it also powers their technology. A scene in which Tiva’s father participates in a group meditation session and the participant’s bodies change colour becomes very surreal; viewers will feel their minds simply cleaned out several times by this scene that breaks all the laws of physics and conservative morality. Don’t worry, there are more scenes in the film that will clean that scene out of people’s minds! Landscapes filled with exotic plants and animals prove to be very menacing to the Oms: a flying anteater licks up Oms with its penis-shaped tongue and Terr and a friend are nearly stomped on by a five-eyed / four-legged insectoid dragging a cumbersome ovipositor. Another critter with a nose that sprouts feelers spends its time in a cage grabbing and shaking little piggy flies with the antlered proboscis. Most mind-fucking of all is a contoured landscape of tubular worms that arch their backs during periods of rain. Perhaps there are too many unnecessary sexual jokes in the fauna and flora of the Draags’ world: the whole place is teeming with eroticism. It’s as if the animators deliberately set out to bait the conservative political establishment of their day, which in Czechoslovakia would have been the Communists and in France would have included most of the major political parties along the entire political spectrum and the Roman Catholic Church as well, by creating a universe in which everything is a sexual metaphor of some kind. In those days people believed sexual repression went hand-in-hand together with political repression and political freedom would lead to sexual freedom or vice versa. Little did folks at the time realise that sexual freedom mightn’t necessarily lead to political and social freedom, and could encourage the further oppression of women by objectifying and sexualising their bodies and clothes.

Due to the overarching themes, the plot’s complexity and the film’s short running time, character development is weak: viewers get no sense of Terr changing and maturing in personality as he adapts from his sheltered life with Tiva to life with the wild Oms, learning responsibility, independence and leadership along the way. The unnamed wild female Om who rescues him remains a minor character and the romance that develops between her and Terr is unconvincing. Neither the Draags nor the Oms come across as more than one-dimensional archetypes for class struggle and revolt against colonisation: the Draags appear over-refined and have a love-hate relationship with procreation. The Oms struggle against ignorance and superstition in their society and the process itself says something about the role of religion and the enforcement of ignorance in keeping a slave class oppressed.

Unfortunately even after the collapse of Communism across Europe, the ideas and messages of “Fantastic Planet” are still needed in our societies; many former Communist states in eastern Europe are falling under fascist government and economic inequalities are creating new social divisions and discrimination. The film is worth several viewings if only to acclimatise to the distinctive animation style and get over the sexualised look of the exotic wildlife and landscapes. The music is a mix of seventies prog(ressive) guitar rock pop with a lot of wet-sounding wah-wah pedal effects and some jazz.

 

 

 

Stalker: immersive film of beauty and ugliness, self-doubt and renewal of faith

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Stalker” (1979)

For Western audiences used to fast action science fiction movies, “Stalker” is a very slow-paced post-apocalyptic mover with a barebones plot that symbolises humanity’s search for hope and faith. In a future world devastated by war, a man (Alexander Kaidanovsky) known only as the Stalker works as a guide taking people through a territory called the Zone in his country. The area is actually off-limits to the public and heavily guarded and fortified and both the Stalker and his wife (Alisa Freindlich) know his work is illegal – he has been imprisoned before. The reason for taking people through the Zone though is to reach an area called the Room where entrants will find their deepest wishes fulfilled. So the Stalker – we’ll call him S for convenience – continues doing his risky work in spite of the wife’s pleas and anger. At the film’s opening, S is preparing already to meet two new clients, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), at a bar. This part of the film unfolds slowly: the opening scenes, done in sepia tints, are much like early 1920’s expressionist silent films in their close focus on still objects in S’s room. The deliberate use of sepia and not colour calls attention to the drab, impoverished surroundings in which S’s family lives and S makes his living.

Entering the Zone is fairly quick if tricky – the trio must evade guards on motorcycle and in a Land Rover – and the men then ride an open railway carriage into the heart of the Zone. The landscape changes from bombed-out ruins and mud tracks to a lush and verdant paradise where abandoned buildings are scattered here and there. The filmstock changes from sepia tones to colour to emphasise the men’s crossing from reality to a place of non-reality. Normal laws of physics apparently don’t apply in the Zone and S advises his clients to follow him and do exactly as he says to avoid the invisible dangers that surround them. He tests routes through the Zone with metal nuts that he throws with slings. While they advance towards the Room, the men have philosophical discussions and reveal why they want to visit the Room. The Writer (W) needs new inspiration for his work and the Professor (P) wants to make a discovery that will win him a Nobel Prize. Sometimes in conversation S refers to his mentor, a previous stalker called Porcupine, who himself entered the Room, came into a lot of money and then hanged himself.

They walk through fields, go through a long dark tunnel and travel through a chamber called the “meat mincer” where long ago, Porcupine’s poet brother died. On reaching the entrance to the Room, P reveals his reason for coming is to blow up the Room with a bomb in his knapsack to stop the general public from hearing about it and clamouring to visit to fulfill their desires which more often than not might be base and selfish. W, who has been skeptical about the Zone and the Room for much of the journey, accuses S of exploiting people’s hopes and dreams.Quarrelling and fisticuffs follow during which the reason that Porcupine’s brother died in the mincer is revealed.

“Stalker” doesn’t seem much like a science fiction film at all though it is based on a novella written by two brothers, Boris and Arkay Strugatsky, who are famous in Russia for writing science fiction stories and novels, some of which have been adapted to film. In its early sepia-toned scenes, the film resembles a war movie with film noir elements inserted, thanks to the style of cinematography used which emphasises sharp contrasts of light and shadow to the extent that darkness may frame shots, and textures of walls, detritus on floors and scum in water are readily noticed. The camera often operates from behind a wall or a structure, peering into a scene where action is occurring. Scenes are very prolonged so as to draw viewers into the action, the mood and the atmosphere: an extended scene of rainfall through an open ceiling while the men sit on the floor just outside the Room conveys their indecision and perhaps a loss of belief and faith in themselves and what the Room may hold. When the camera moves, it often tracks slowly, forwards or backwards in the tunnel scenes; around actors close-up, showing off their haggard profiles; or upwards over objects and relics buried in mud or shallow putrid water. The film seems to meditate on a notion of a lost civilisation and religion whose knowledge and wisdom can never be brought back.

The men and their journey may be symbolic in themselves: W and P represent the artistic, creative aspect and the scientific, rational aspect of humanity while S represents the spirtual impulse and belief in faith that bridges creative imagination and down-to-earth investigation and materialism. The journey can be interpreted in different ways: it could be a journey from the conscious world – the one outside the Zone – into the subconscious, represented by the Zone. The invisible dangers in the Zone that force S and his clients to improvise their route through the tunnel and the mincer represent inner complexes such as phobias and repressed memories that prevent us from tapping into our subconscious for inspiration and purpose to life. P’s plan to bomb the Room might represent some individuals’ denial or desire to control what they see as their irrational impulses; the possibility that he may be working for the tyrannical government that rules his society might suggest that governments desire to control what people think and feel. W’s skepticism could reflect a loss of faith and belief in one’s abilities: at one point in the film he admits he hates writing and rants about the culture of criticism in society and how too often it seeks to pull down talented if eccentric people to the same level rather than judge and improve the quality and worth of their artistic output. The journey through the Zone might also be interpreted as a flight or escape from the struggle and pain of life: shallow ponds of water and mud in parts of the Zone have religious icons and syringes buried in them, showing the ways in which people try to cope with problems in their lives. Incidents throughout the journey which include P’s search for his knapsack containing the bomb suggest that W may be right about S: that S does manipulate people’s hopes and beliefs for personal gain and so in a sense S represents organised religion that manipulates people’s desire to come close to God through rituals and prayers that lose meaning over time. Or perhaps the Zone is simply a bridge between life and death and S is its psychopomps: an ominous black wolf-like dog appears in the Zone and befriends S. Maybe the Room itself is irrelevant and the journey through the Zone and what S’s clients get out of it is the important thing. Viewers are free to interpret what they see depending on where they are coming from in terms of life experience and knowledge.

Significantly S loses his faith in himself and in his life’s purpose but redemption is unexpectedly at hand in the form of his crippled child Monkey who, though deformed by the Zone’s influence, also displays an unusual psychokinetic talent. This suggests that what the Zone and Room represent can always be found around us or within us in spite of limitations we have and people don’t have to rely on external phenomena or travel to places to find creativity, inspiration or purpose in life. The Zone then doesn’t really exist as a physical phenomenon and in that form it is a figment of S’s imagination to give him a reason to live and to enable him to cope with the problems of daily life.

Actors Kaidanovsky, Solonitsyn and Grinko play their parts well: they are minimal in their movements, speech and actions but convey a wide range of emotions as they are forced to admit their real reasons for entering the Zone and wanting to enter the Room, and through their conversations and arguments discover, gain or lose something in themselves that radically changes their lives forever. The only piece of acting that’s overdone and irrelevant to the film is the frenzy S’s wife goes into when S leaves to meet W and P in the bar. This is one of a few flaws in the film; other flaws include the concept of the “mincer” which doesn’t come across on screen as very frightening or frightening enough that it could kill someone. The music by Edward Artemev is a bit of a mishmash of orchestral music, some ambient and strings influenced by Russian and Middle Eastern music styles and for a movie like “Stalker”, really needs its own identity. The suggestion that religious belief must underpin creative and scientific endeavour may be too facile given that S is revealed as a flawed priest or prophet conducting a pointless ritual.

At times depressing and uplifting, ugly and beautiful, this film is worth watching at least once and preferably a few times to immerse oneself in its atmosphere and scenes of post-industrial decay and of nature reasserting itself among dilapidated factory buildings and tunnels still filled with pools of polluted water and spilt chemical toxins. Tragically several people associated with “Stalker”, including Tarkovsky himself and Solonitsyn, died of cancer-related conditions which may have been caused in part by exposure to pollutants in the places where the film was made.

Pilot Pirx’s Inquest: thoughtful low-budget sci-fi film about how humans and other intelligent beings can co-exist

Marek Pestrak, “Pilot Pirx’s Inquest” / “Test Pilota Pirxa” / “Doznanie Pilota Pirksa” (1979)

A joint Polish-Estonian production, this low-budget movie about a space trip that nearly ends in tragedy examines the theme of how humans and human-like robots might co-exist if the robots, made to serve humans, realised they were superior to their masters in some ways. A corporation that manufactures intelligent androids is keen to begin mass production but meets resistance from the public and governments. It is proposed that a small crew of humans and androids be sent on a mission to place two probes in the rings of Saturn: a simple enough job but the purpose of the mission is to observe the behaviours and interactions between the humans and robots. Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitski) is selected to head the mission. He refuses at first but changes his mind and accepts the role after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt. During the mission, some members of the crew including crew physician Tom Novak (Alexander Kaidanovski) confide in him and reveal their identities as either human or robot and insinuate that other members may not be human. Pirx isn’t sure who’s telling the truth and starts feeling a little paranoid about what’s happening around him on the ship Goliath. Still he’s determined to find out who is human and who is not, figuring that knowing who is which is critical to the mission’s success. In the meantime a rogue member of the crew carries out small acts of sabotage on the ship and sends Pirx a recorded warning and threat which Pirx plays. When it’s time to insert the probes, the Goliath goes wildly off course through the ring belt, the ship is forced to accelerate suddenly and the humans on board face death from being turned into schnitzels from the incredible G-forces the Goliath encounters.

The special effects are uneven and often elementary to the extent of appearing cartoonish but they are adequate for the purposes of the film which gives the impression of being “hard science fiction” with its emphasis on scientific realism. There are just enough effects to make the society credible as scientifically and technologically advanced and at the same time a society we can recognise as ours. It’s as if the movie takes place in an alternate 1970s where the spending priorities of governments and corporations were different enough that some areas of robotics and cybernetics developed faster than they did in our 197os, and so the parallel Earth got androids and we didn’t. The world in “Test Pilota Pirxa” otherwise looks no different than what ours looked like over thirty years ago and the film itself now appears as a fictional historical drama.

The acting is low-key and straight with Desnitski dominating the bulk of the movie’s scenes. He underplays his role as do all the other actors in a film heavy with dialogue whose sole purpose is to push the plot and explore the human-versus-robot theme. As Novak who reveals his robot identity early on, Kaidanovski impresses in a minimalist, subdued way as a being who understands little of human nature and its ways yet is keen to help Desnitski. Interestingly his character and another robot voice their hope that Desnitski’s opinion of robots will be negative so that their makers can’t go ahead with mass production, otherwise the robots that already exist will lose their individual identities and won’t be able to exult in their special abilities which help form those identities. No point in being an Übermensch if you have so many millions of clones like you who can do the same things you can do; you would just feel like … well, you would just feel like yet another machine-cog in a vast network of machine-cogs.

The music soundtrack by famous Estonian holy minimalist composer Arvo Part is not impressive: it’s a mix of conventional orchestral formal compositional music, spider-like organ music that almost sounds a little electronic and some near-futuristic percussion rhythms and beats.

The plot’s resolution suggests that co-existence between humans and robots will always be ambivalent. Trying to second-guess what robots might be thinking and why they might do certain things and not others will be a major human preoccupation. As long as human and robot natures are kept separate with humans allowed to be irrational and robots restricted to acting logically and rationally, humans will always be able to control robots. Not a very satisfactory conclusion to reach; how human and robot natures will remain separate is never explained. The relationship between humans and technology already is a dynamic one in which technological advances and breakthroughs force us to change and re-evaluate our reliance and dependence on machines constantly so the same would be expected of human and android interactions.

The film can be slow and doesn’t really start until halfway through once the Goliath blasts off. The early half of “Test Pilota Pirxa” plays a little like a straight spy thriller. Once we’re in space and Desnitski begins questioning the crew, the paranoia and the tension start to increase. The climax isn’t especially dramatic and no, it doesn’t actually come when the rogue member’s identity is revealed and he meets a just punishment – it comes much later after Pirx’s court case, in which he is prosecuted for having endangered his crew during the mission, ends.

As is, “Test Pilota Pirxa” could have done better in its investigation of human-android interaction and whether humans and androids can live together amicably. It takes for granted that robots will always be logical and there will be large-scale human resistance towards them; this attitude wouldn’t necessarily exist in real life. Much depends on what the robots are designed to do and how generalised or specialised we humans want them to be. At least the film treats its audiences as intelligent and able to consider its concepts. The ambiguous conclusion suggests a reluctance on the film-makers’ part to commit to a definite opinion as to whether co-existence is possible and if so, can be successful; what could be implied instead is a plea for tolerance and a “live and let live” attitude.

 

Amphibian Man: hodge-podge of science fiction fantasy, action, doomed teen romance and anti-capitalist commentary

Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennady Kazansky, “Chelovek-Amfibiya” aka “Amphibian Man” (1962)

An unusual science fiction / fantasy / romance of a doomed love affair combined with a love triangle and a bit of clumsy anti-capitalist commentary, this film was a hit with Soviet audiences in the early 1960s on first release. It still looks good for its age half a century later: the very faux-Mexican setting looks quaintly historic as though the events of the film took place in a peri0d much earlier than 1962 when it was filmed. The cinematography is very good with a number of shots throughout the movie taken at unusual angles or from characters’ points of view and there is an emphasis on displaying underwater scenes as bright-blue, beautiful and benign even when there is a shark lurking about. The young lead actors are stunning to look at and the camera often focusses on their beautiful features: even the villain is extraordinarily handsome in a moody way. The acting is at least natural if not particularly outstanding and even a bit wooden and amateurish.

All characters are very much stock stereotypes and the actors deviate little from those stereotypes. Medical scientist Dr Salvatore (Nikolai Simonov), the idealistic “mad scientist” of the piece, has a son who once suffered an incurable lung disease so the father implanted gills in the child’s body somewhere to save his life. The boy Ichtyander, the “monster” naif, is able to breathe and live underwater as well as on land but the father keeps him isolated from other people as he has a vague plan for the boy to found and lead an oceanic republic free of class and other social divisions and exploitation. In the movie Ichtyander (Vladimir Korenev) is a teenager and he falls in love with a girl Gutiere (Anastasia Vertinskaya) after rescuing her from a shark attack; he desires to follow and be with her, and he leaves his water-world to go to the city where she lives. Unfortunately Gutiere’s father, the pearl-diver Baltazar (Anatoly Smiranin), is heavily in debt and has promised the girl’s hand in marriage to local rich playboy Pedro Zurita (Mikhail Kozakov) who has promised to pay the old man’s debts but has other thoughts in mind about how he’ll use Baltazar’s ship and pearl-diver crew to enrich himself.

The plot is a hodge-podge of action, romance and sci-fi fantasy; easy enough to follow but with gaping holes that make it shaky in parts. It seems over-eager to advance to the climax to the extent that characters must have in-built GPS systems in their brains to find significant people. There are elements of comedy and musicals here and there. The busy pace and the plot’s complications don’t permit much character development which is unfortunate because Ichtyander’s infatuation with Gutiere leads him out of his isolation and his father’s control and forces him to confront the best and worst of human behaviour and social interactions. Young viewers might identify with Ichtyander’s confusion at adult ways of behaving and doing things. There is a point made about how money divides people into social classes and how society judges people on the basis of their wealth or poverty. By the end of the film Ichtyander still seems very child-like and his future without his father is uncertain. Other characters who also need to escape from their one-dimensional plane of existence include Gutiere, who could have railed against a system that forces her to marry because of economic necessity, and Baltazar, who is not shown in the movie to have a guilty conscience over horse-trading Gutiere: he must have had one though because (spoiler alert) he ends up saving Gutiere from a lifetime of misery with Pedro. A support character Olsen (Vladlen Davydov) is very under-used as a potential aid and mentor to Ichtyander.

Criticism of capitalism comes in the person of Pedro who desires to exploit Ichtyander’s fishing and diving skills and later tries to convince Dr Salvatore to mass-produce thousands of Ichtyanders for profit, demonstrating that the evil entrepreneurial and exploitive capitalist mindset is always on permanent autopilot in the brains of stock villains. By contrast, Dr Salvatore’s desire for an egalitarian socialist underwater utopia is demonstrated as unrealistic in the context of an impoverished Latin American country where corruption, or what the viewer sees of it, is rife. Everyone in this country seems to be in debt and people constantly haggle for more money: Gutiere gives her necklace to Olsen so he can pawn it for money to keep his newspaper business going and Baltazar is desperate enough to sell off Gutiere to keep his pearl-diving business above water.

A highlight of the film is Andrei Petrov’s musical soundtrack which includes the use of electronic instruments as well as conventional orchestral music and some Spanish-influenced flourishes. Dramatic sweeps of violins and other strings mix with beautiful bell-like tones and some odd, spacey tunes. A couple of songs appear early in the film as though the directors had ambitions for it to be a musical before realising the idea wouldn’t mesh too well with a plot filled with twists.

A chase scene, a kidnap scene and an escape-from-jail scene complete with gunshots enliven the plot which concludes in freedom but not happiness ever after or a better understanding of the corrupt world around them for the young would-be lovers. Overall “Amphibian Man” is a visually striking film with beautifully shot locations that are picturesque and quaint, and which features good-looking young actors who run and swim around a lot. The premise and the plot are interesting though at times the directors seemed unsure whether they were making a musical, a comedy or an action film: the film dithers in one genre, then another before settling into the action genre. The film could have been much stronger with better characterisation and fewer twists in the plot but it was made for general public viewing after all.

The Andromeda Nebula: the Soviet Star Trek that was never to be in spite of impressive visual style

Yevgeny Sherstobitov, “The Andromeda Nebula” (1967)

Based on a novel “Andromeda: a Space-Age Tale” by Ivan Efremov, this is a very visually striking film about the crew of the spaceship the SS Tantra, tasked with a mission to explore and map an unknown sector of space, and the utopian society on Earth that sent out the craft. The film was intended to be the first episode of a series of movies about the SS Tantra people’s adventures but its public reception was apparently poor and Efremov later fell foul of the KGB so the entire multi-film project was abandoned. The fact that “The Andromeda Nebula” wasn’t intended to stand alone explains various anomalies about it: the parallel plots on the spaceship and Earth are very weakly connected and neither is resolved within the film’s 77-minute running time; and the characters are very unevenly developed with only one character, Commander Erg Noor of the SS Tantra (Nikolai Kryukov who has third billing in the acting credits), being the most rounded of the lot and one viewers will most readily follow. The film’s constant flitting between story-lines based on Earth and on the spaceship can be very confusing and viewers need to be very focussed on the relationships among the various characters, in particular the possible love triangle involving Erg Noor, Vida Kong (Vija Artmane) and Dar Veter (Sergei Stolyarov) which perhaps explains why Vida refuses to commit herself to a relationship with Dar Veter, and the infatuation astro-navigator Niza Crete (Tatiana Voloshina) has for Erg Noor, to understand the entire film as it scrolls along.

The SS Tantra is caught in orbit around the Iron Star and its crew intercepts a distress signal coming from a ship on a planet that also orbits the star. Erg Noor commands the ship to land on the planet and he leads a team to investigate. They find an alien spacecraft and also a ship from Earth, both having crash-landed on the planet. While trying to determine the cause of the disaster that befell the ship from Earth, the team is attacked by a mysterious predator that somehows penetrates a man’s space-suit and eats him from within so that he simply disappears and his suit crumples up. The team retreats to the main ship but Erg Noor is determined to know the nature of the predator that manifests as a black shape-shifting cloudy mass, sends out electrical sparls and hides from intense light. The commander’s stubbornness nearly costs the life of an important crew-member whose chances of surviving the trip back to Earth become remote.

Back on Earth, Vida and Dar Veter become very close while Dar Veter gets involved in various creative projects that include archaeology. (The novel’s author himself was a paleontologist who first realised that the ways organisms fossilise could be studied as series of patterns and one of his leisure interests was studying ancient Greek culture.) The futuristic society on Earth is presented as a happy and healthy outdoor-oriented utopia where the air and environment are clean, the weather is always sunny and young people freely choose the adult mentor they believe will guide them. People wear distinctive costumes partly inspired by ancient Greek clothing and designs, greet each other with unusual and particular gestures, and use large television screens to communicate and entertain one another: there is an early scene in which characters watch a colourful dance performance of a woman replicated in multi-shots put together on a large screen on a wall. There’s no need for obvious pro-Communist proselytising because the future society itself is the propaganda.

The plot is similar to the plot of an earlier sci-fi film “Ikarie XB-1” from Czechoslovakia which detailed the day-to-day life of people aboard an interstellar craft and threw them into situations of investigating an abandoned spacecraft with a hidden danger and being affected by radiation from a dark star. That film also insinuated that the society that produced the spaceship Ikarie XB-1 was a perfect utopian society in which people were reasonable and cultured and dealt with crises and emergencies with reasoned intelligence; and so it is with this Soviet film though Erg Noor is allowed a couple of internal conflicts that relate to his dual role as scientist / Tantra commander and the age-old problem of reconciling personal feelings with his duty.

The ancient Greek influence finds expression in the set and costume design which tends on the whole to minimalism, graceful lines and simple patterns on pale or white backgrounds. In outdoor scenes this influence can be impractical (white clothes get dirty in archaeological digging work) and other scenes in which holiday rituals are celebrated look unintentionally (and hilariously) fascist with people lining up in robes before a girant statue of a hand holding a flame. The interior sets of the SS Tantra emphasise its spaciousness and smooth flowing lines with the futuristic technology hinted at: this is to demonstrate that the crew takes the technology for granted and regards it as a help. (Plus of course minimal sets are easy on the film’s budget and the film “ages” more slowly and looks less dated over time.) Significantly the Tantra is not shown in its entirety in the film, avoiding the problem in “Ikarie XB-1″ where the spaceship looked very cheap and cartoonish, and exterior scenes focus on the exploratory vehicles, quite impressive and realistic in looks and design, that Erg Noor’s team brings out to travel to the derelict spaceships. The enemy faced by the SS Tantra crew is very strange and creepy, created almost completely by the use of red and black-coloured smoke manipulated in ways to look almost life-like.

Overall the film is of interest mainly to people keen to know how set design can influence the look, style and atmosphere of films and how stylised acting can give the impression of an unfamiliar, even alien society. The film’s problems with characterisation and plot stem from its makers’ assumptions that it would herald an ongoing series of films in which different characters, presumably all introduced in the first film, would star: the film does finish with a sub-plot cliffhanger near the end. Too many characters with little to do other than look good appear. ” … Nebula” might have worked better as a TV series of 1-hour episodes like a Soviet “Star Trek” than as a full-length movie. Perhaps its support for Communism was too subtle for government censors at the time and the dilemmas Erg Noor faces were politically incorrect: even spaceship captains, however fictional, should always know where their supreme loyalties lie.

Ikarie XB-1: an early 1960’s space travel movie that boldly went where no space travel movie went before

Jindrích Polák, “Ikarie XB-1” (1963)

A compelling early 1960’s science fiction gem from the old Czechoslovakia is this lavish effort by Polák that details the day-to-day lives of a crew flying a craft at close to the speed of light to Alpha Centauri in the year 2163. A planet has been detected in that star system that holds the promise of supporting Earth-borne life and this is the goal that consumes the crew’s attention and the movie’s running time. For a supposed pro-Soviet propaganda piece this movie has a small amount of capitalist bashing. There’s not much of a definite plot: after the film’s first thirty minutes which consist of introducing various members of the 40-strong crew as they go about their work, the story settles into three set pieces. In the first piece the crew of Ikarie XB-1 discover a derelict spacecraft and despatch two men to investigate; the men report that the abandoned ship is from Earth in 1987. The men discover there are still active nuclear weapons on the ship and try to escape. In the second set piece the Ikarie XB-1 passes near a dark star whose radiation affects the crew badly and causes a kind of sleeping sickness; this piece leads into the third set piece in which a crew member Michael (Otto Lackovic), who had ventured outside the Ikarie XB-1 to fix something while the ship was passing the dark star, becomes deranged from too much dark-star radiation exposure and becomes a threat to the ship’s mission and the crew’s lives as he starts damaging some of the robots and the ship’s technology.

The interior sets of Ikarie XB-1 are the film’s main highlight: the design of the control and flight rooms where crew members sit and pilot the ship is very “modern” for the period with plenty of artistic flair, light and space even in the corridors as well as the main function areas. A canteen, a gym and a swimming pool area Costumes are deliberately utilitarian apart from a ballroom dancing scene where the women wear 1960’s fashions and the men wear uniforms meant to be futuristic tuxedos. Admirably women as well as men have responsibility for piloting the ship, controlling interior air flows, temperatures and pressures, and monitoring people’s health and well-being though when it comes to making final decisions that could spell the difference between life and death, the older men still have the upper hand over everyone else, male and female alike. The crew’s response to Michael’s depression and rampage is sane though their capture of him isn’t necessarily recommended: the people in charge try to keep track of his location and where he is moving to, and send one – yes, one! – unarmed man out to fetch him and take him to the sick bay! Perhaps the brave man knows some form of self-defence like the Vulcan neck nerve pinch that isn’t mentioned in the film.

As if to provide a wry kind of balance, the exterior sets that show the ship flying through space are very cartoony and amateurish in a film that otherwise presents interstellar travel intelligently and treats its audience as educated and cultured. Viewers may wonder why animation wasn’t used instead to show the ship – perhaps the film’s budget didn’t allow for it. The budget did allow for a music soundtrack that includes some unusual and electronically produced sounds and tunes by famed Czech composer Zdenék Liška and this together with various sound effects that simulate noises from outside the ship as well as inside is another major highlight which contributes mightily to the overall serious and sometimes melancholy mood.

The main dangers faced by the crew suggest a questioning or inquiry into the nature of human interaction in and with space: how humans can create a new and isolated society and how they can co-exist in that society especially during emergency situations when they can only rely on themselves for help. Before the major set pieces take place, the film focusses on a love triangle that fizzles out when the two Romeos discover their lady love already has a husband, and on a couple who discover they’re expecting a baby. As everyone knows, when a film features a pregnancy the baby has to appear and “Ikarie XB-1” obliges with a bonny cutey near the end. Happily the movie never falls into sentimentality or soap-opera territory: everyone on board behaves sanely and properly, even during the party scene where couples dance sedately and people sniff little sticks of fragrance that remind them of Earth. The ship’s science officer is allowed eccentric foibles like bringing a useless robot Patrik on board and refusing to take his vitamin drinks which a woman engineer constantly urges on him. Another crew member brings his piano on board. Given the kind of mini-society the film-makers seemed to have in mind when developing the script, viewers shouldn’t be surprised if other crew members brought along enough musical instruments that they could constitute a full orchestra capable of playing all the major 19th and 20th century symphonies and concertos. The implication is that thanks to the triumph and spread of Communist socialism, all humans have become peaceful and reasonable. Of course this means strong characterisation is not the film’s strong point. Even the encounter with the dark star and its insidious radioactive effects isn’t enough to reduce everyone to a state of “capitalistic” greed and self-indulgence leading to competition, violence and murder. The film might have been more interesting and have a richer sub-text if the dark star had affected the crew in that way: the phenomenon would come to represent the crew’s collective unconsciousness – what Freudian psychoanalysis calls the id – that they haven’t come to terms with and which they must do to survive; but then “Ikarie XB-1” wouldn’t have been approved by the Czechoslovak government censors.

Communist propagandistic bluster in the movie appears in the scene in which the two cosmonauts explore the derelict ship and even there the film suggests that it was the dead capitalist crew’s inability to co-operate and settle disputes amicably that indirectly led to its demise. (And having military generals pilot the derelict craft wasn’t such a good idea either.) The society of “Ikarie XB-1” is proof enough of Communism’s success; whenever problems are encountered, whether from outside or inside, its inhabitants try to deal with them intelligently and resourcefully.

As is, the movie isn’t exciting drama for the general public but it’s a bold attempt to portray a futuristic society that deliberately isolates itself from the rest of humanity and Earth in order to fulfill a grand ambition to reach out to the stars and connect with other sentient life. It’s an interesting paradox, that to contact other intelligences, some of us need to separate ourselves (forever perhaps) from the rest of humankind. “Ikarie XB-1” attempts in a limited way to explore some of the ramifications that might arise when a society willingly detaches itself from all other people to pursue a narrow agenda. The full-length feature format is a restricted medium for studying the problems such a society and its individuals might have so it’s no wonder that when American producer and script-writer Gene Roddenberry had a similar idea about a group of pioneers travelling in space and dealing with emergencies, crises, setbacks and humdrum life generally – the Internet is awash with speculation that he was inspired by “Ikarie XB-1” – he chose the format of a TV series to flesh out his vision. Thus was “Star Trek” born.