Sunday, June 8, 2008

"Humanoid Woman": From MST3K to Restoration

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I ended up with was Humanoid Woman, as a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation on one of those very early episodes of the show when it was still a really cheap, cheesy local-TV outing in Minnesota. The film was an American release (by Sandy Frank) of a bizarre Ukrainian sci-fi movie from 1981 called Cherez ternii k zvyozdam — and no, I have no idea what the literal meaning of the original title is, though among the alternative titles in English were To the Stars by Hard Ways (there’s also the Latin title Per Aspera Ad Astra and the French — for Canadian release — À travers les ronces vers les étoiles). Directed by Richard Viktorov (though, not surprisingly, his last name was spelled “Victor” on this English-dubbed print) from a script he co-wrote with Kir Bulychyov, Humanoid Woman is a severely edited version of a flim that ran 148 minutes on its initial release (though the “restored” version, prepared by Voktorov’s son Nikolai in 2001, runs only 123 minutes — apparently, as with the similarly cut-and-pasted Lang Metropolis, some footage was permanently lost in the shuffle and outtakes had to be used to fill in some of the scenes).

Slow-paced and very confusing at times, the film deals with a spaceship crew that comes across the derelict wreckage of another spacecraft containing adult-sized human clones; most of them are dead but one, the titular humanoid woman Niya (Yelena Metyolkina, an appealingly androgynous actress who looked to me like Sinéad O’Connor in drag as David Bowie, though an commentator compared her to Annie Lennox in her Eurythmics days; I couldn’t shake the feeling that the casting director of this film cruised the Lesbian bars of Kiev until s/he finally came across Ms. Metyolkina and thought, “That’s her!”), survives and is brought home to live with members of the crew of the rescue ship in an apartment building of surpassing ugliness (an all too vivid reminder of what decades of Soviet domination did to Russia’s housing stock, though similarly tacky buildings are being put up right and left in this city right now as overpriced condo projects). The paterfamilias of this household is Sergei Lebedev (Uldis Lieldidz), who has a tall, very skinny and dorky-looking teenage son, Cadet Stepan Lebedev (Vadim Ledogorov, who was too gangly to do much for me aesthetically until the camera gave us a crotch shot and showed his impressively well-packed basket, after which I had a crush on him big-time!), who predictably gets a big case of the adolescent hots for Niya and takes her cliff-diving (some impressive dives here by the actors’ stunt doubles) despite her initial reluctance to go into the water because it reminds her too much of her natal fluid.

In a series of confusingly edited flashbacks we learn that Niya was pre-programmed for obedience by her creator/father, a leader of the planet Dessa which had been virtually destroyed, presumably by nuclear war, since whatever the catastrophe was it left behind — stop me if you’ve heard this before — a race of ugly mutants who go about in wax-like face masks that not only shield each other’s eyes from their ugliness (though when the masks finally crumble they look no worse than badly treated burn victims) but also allow them to breathe the planet’s otherwise toxic air. Niya stows away on a spaceship and hijacks it to Dessa — blowing up an entire other planet with her telekinetic powers (did I mention that she has telekinetic powers?) when an order from Starfleet Command or whatever it’s called in this movie threatens to divert the spaceship to rescue an earth party stranded there — where the earthlings have such amazing technology that just by beaming some sort of energy source at the planet they can counteract the effects of radioactivity (or whatever) and make the place bloom again — only the undergrounders are hyper-paranoid and think the earthlings have come to their planet not to save but to destroy it. Somehow or other a giant foam monster that looks like what would emerge if the Woolite warehouse blew up gets loose and starts eating the bad guys, including the principal villain, a little person with a striking resemblance to Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies, and Niya either sacrifices herself for the good of her planet or stays behind to help the not-so-nasty Dessans rebuild — whatever happened, the movie ends with a tearful farewell between her and Stepan as Stepan rejoins his dad and their comrades on the ship home.

Some of the movies Mystery Science Theatre 3000 lampooned — including Cosmic Princess, the one they’d shown the previous week, which was spliced together none too convincingly from two Space: 1999 episodes — showed genuine promise in their premises but failed in the execution. This one is just dull, spliced together from tropes that had been done a lot better in other people’s movies. The slow pace doesn’t help; both Charles and I noticed the similarity between the visual style of this film and that of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris — the plodding pace, the lingering shots of the mystery woman, the attempt by the very slowness of the piece to bring depth and emotional resonance to what would otherwise be a pretty ordinary piece of adolescent sci-fi — but whereas Tarkovsky uses this style to draw us into the story and make it heartbreaking, Viktorov only manages to bore us out of our skulls with it until he gets to the final action scene, and somehow if they had to rip off another movie to provide themselves with a climax I do wish it had been something a little heavier than The Blob.

Indeed, the main problem with this film (judging it from a poor-quality VHS copy of a dubbed print and realizing that it may have lost a lot in translation, in more ways than one, in a context of deliberate mockery) seems to have been that Viktorov and his writing partner Bulychyov had too many good ideas: the “stranger in a strange land” gimmick of the alien on earth adjusting to a very different physical and cultural environment; the quest narrative of the lost traveler who needs to go home; the battle royal on the home planet as the traveler desperately tries to pick up the pieces of the doomed world (a trope far better done in the 1955 American film This Island Earth, also a movie that got the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 “treatment” but didn’t deserve it), the action climax, the tearful parting — all of these gimmicks had been done better elsewhere and after a while we were merely counting the minutes until this dreadful movie ended and thinking that later, when the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 concept went national, they got movies that came closer to the ideal balance they needed for their act: not too good that we wouldn’t want to see them lampooned, not so bad that even with the MST3k “treatment” they remained doggedly unentertaining.

The jokes themselves also got better later on in the series; this time, aside from a nicely funny wisecrack about one of the crew members on the spaceship that discovers Niya in the first place having a moustache resembling Hitler’s, their best gags was when they started singing songs Aleksei Rybnikov’s dirge-like electronic music score reminded them of, including Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” and Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This.” Surprisingly, they didn’t do the parody of Harry Belafonte’s “Coconut Woman” that occurred to me (“Humanoid woman is calling out/And everywhere on Dessa they can hear her shout … ”), but maybe that would have been too obscure a cultural reference in 1989. They did use the film's title in song to the tune (more or less) of the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and at one point they said Niya looked like the negative image of Arsenio Hall — they seem to have been particularly partial to Arsenio Hall jokes just then since there were some on the Cosmic Princess show as well.