Friday, April 13, 2012

Cosmic Voyage (Mosfilm,1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Cosmic Voyage, a peculiar Russian science-fiction film from 1936 about a trip to the moon. Sinister Cinema’s owner Greg Luce claimed a copyright for this version of the film, which was a silent with recorded music (pre-existing classical themes, mostly Beethoven but some bits that sounded like Grieg’s Peer Gynt and one theme that was unmistakable because it was used three years later in another pioneering 1930’s sci-fi film, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe: Franz Liszt’s Les Préludes). Cosmic Voyage is a stunningly produced movie with a pretty trivial plot; owing a lot to the pioneering film by Fritz Lang, Woman in the Moon, from eight years earlier (1928), the production values are generally splendid, though for all the skill of the Soviet technicians in building spectacular and utterly convincing model sets, making rockets that actually looked like they could fly, and doing effective wire-work on the actors — at least I assume it was wire-work — to simulate weightlessness and lunar gravity, they don’t seem to have access to process screens. One of the most stunning model shots of the rocket installation where the rockets (there are three full-sized versions as well as at least two miniature ones for sending animals into space as a test before humans are launched) are being readied for launch is completely believable until two little model cars wend their way through it and the credibility suddenly disappears.

The plot owes more than a little to Thea von Harbou’s script for Woman in the Moon and also to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World: there’s an irascible old professor, Pavel Ivanovich Sedikh (Sergei Komarov), who insists on flying the rocket himself despite the warnings of his fussbudgety old colleague Professor Karin (Vasili Kovrigin) that he’s so old his heart won’t take the strain of a rocket launch; young male and female astronauts — oops, this is a Soviet film so they’re called cosmonauts — Captain Victor Orlov (Nikolai Feoktisov) and Professor Marina (K. Moskalenko); and an insufferably cute kid (referred to in Greg Luce’s subtitles as a “scout” but more likely a member of the Young Pioneers, the Soviets’ official organization for young boys) who’s just called “Andri” in the Sinister Cinema version but is listed on as Andryusha Orlov (Vasili Gaponenko), meaning he’s presumably Victor’s younger brother, who stows away on the rocket the way similarly cute kids were doing in the U.S. in Republic serials. These four unlikely cosmonauts get in the rocket, go to the moon, hang out there for a little while, jump around between the lunar rocks aided by the moon’s lower (one-sixth of earth’s) gravity, find they’re in danger of running out of oxygen for the trip home, the old professor nearly gets killed in a cave-in but he’s rescued in time, and the accident enables him to find a substance that looks like snow and which he proclaims to be “frozen atmosphere” from which they can extract enough oxygen to replenish their supplies enough to survive the trip home, which they do, and they’re greeted as heroes at the end. There’s not much more to it than that — unlike Lang and Harbou in decadent capitalist (and soon to go fascist) Germany, who cooked up some human skullduggeries to maintain interest and keep their plot boiling both on earth and on the moon, director Vasili Zhuravlylov and writer Alexander Filimonov (adapting a novel by one Konstantin Tsiolovsky called Outside the Earth) keep all the nice little Communist Russians working together for the sake of Comrade Stalin and the Five-Year Plan.

Charles questioned the decision to have the film set in 1946, just 10 years after it was made (and 11 years before the real-life Soviets actually shot an animal — a dog, rather than the rabbit and the cat used in this movie — into space), on the ground that even if World War II hadn’t intervened and laid waste to Russia in the interim, they still wouldn’t have been able to construct that elaborate infrastructure needed to build and launch the rocket in just 10 years — but it was a major contention of Stalinist propaganda that socialism was so obviously more efficient than capitalism major technological leaps would occur far faster under enlightened and efficiently planned Soviet leadership than they would under the anarchy of the so-called “free market.” (Today, of course, that sort of economic arrogance is preached in the other direction: Right-wingers and market ideologies regard lassiez-faire market capitalism as so obviously superior to all other possible ways to organize an economy they constantly talk about “unleashing the private sector” as their solution to all economic woes, while the supposedly “unleashed” private sector sits on its capital instead of investing it and actually producing useful goods in the U.S.) Cosmic Voyage is a stunning film from the visual standpoint, and it’s surprisingly accurate scientifically — the cosmonauts (three of the four, anyway; old professor Sedikh stays at the controls and flies the ship) spend the launch inside “liquid tubes” that supposedly lessen the intensity of acceleration (the experience of space travel in which the force of gravity actually increases as the ship nears, and then reaches, escape velocity and then gravity disappears altogether), the rocket is multi-stage (a feature of the real moon rockets even Lang, Harbou and the scientists advising them missed), the landing craft fires retro-rockets to slow down for a soft landing, and the lunar gravity is (correctly) far less than earth’s.

It’s a stunning-looking film — sci-fi buffs, especially ones with a technological bent, will be astounded that 33 years before the actual moon landing Russian filmmakers came up with this accurate a depiction of how we’d get there at a time when the makers of the Flash Gordon serials were still bouncing toy spacecraft uncertainly on wires against painted backdrops supposedly representing space — but plot-wise it isn’t much above the level of a Republic serial, reflecting the malign influence of Stalin’s proclamation of “socialist realism” as the artistic style of all Soviet art, which tossed the dazzling montage experiments of Eisenstein and his contemporaries in the 1920’s onto the political trash heap and led Soviet filmmakers to copy the Hollywood conventions. The page for this film promoted an earlier (1924) Soviet sci-fi silent, Aelita: Queen of Mars, and that’s probably a more interesting movie than this one — and also one considerably less retro; at a time when the rest of the world’s studios and filmmakers (aside from Charlie Chaplin) had long since converted to sound, Cosmic Voyage is silent with a recorded musical background, and it doesn’t help that rather than translate all the Russian intertitles into English, Greg Luce chose to insert an occasional screen message summarizing the plot of the next few minutes of the film. These messages were superimposed on the action (sometimes over the original Russian titles) and were not easy to read, and while they made it possible to follow the film I’d have much rather seen a version with English titles replacing the Russian ones and a newly recorded score (and apparently a Russian version from 2007 actually did re-record the score!).