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.