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.

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