• Film reviews

    #459 – A Great Space Journey (1974)

    A Great Space Journey (1974)

    Film review #459

    Director: Valentin Selivanov

    SYNOPSIS: The All-Union Children’s Space Competition aims to find three children that will be the first youths in space aboard a new spaceship. Sveta, Sasha and Fedya are chosen from the one hundred thousand applicants to embark on the mission with the sole adult on board, Captain Egor Kalinovsky. After the ship is launched, Egor is found to be sick, and placed in quarantine, leaving the children in charge of the spaceship…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: A Great Space Journey is a 1974 children’s science-fiction film based on the play The First Three, or the Year 2001 by Sergey Mikhailov. The film opens up introducing a space program that will choose three children to be the first young people in space. Out of one hundred thousand applicants from across the Soviet Union, three children are selected: Sveta Ishenova, Sasha Ivanenko, and Fedya Druzhinin. The three are sent into space on the spaceship Astra with the only adult on the voyage, Captain Egor Kalinovsky, who is in charge of the mission. When Egor is found to have a fever, that may spread to everyone else, he is placed in quarantine, leaving the children having to take charge of the ship and the mission. The story is fairly simple, being a film aimed at children, and is fairly light on the details concerning what the mission they are on actually is. Nevertheless, there is plenty that is going on in the film, as the children have to navigate through a fair amount of emergencies and strange situations as their journey continues. Not having an overarching objective hinders any sense of direction and accomplishment the film has, but nevertheless, there’s a good sense of adventure and enough variety to capture viewer’s imaginations. There’s a bit of a twist in the story that explains most things at the end, but I’ll discuss that at the end too.

    The three main characters are the children that were chosen through the space program. Each of their characters are developed through flashbacks to when they were undergoing the testing, highlighting their relationships with their parents and each other. There’s also Egor, the only adult on the spaceship, who is placed in quarantine, but can still communicate to the others. One of the children, Fedya, is placed in command of the mission after Egor is quarantined, and it is hinted that he is troubled by something about the mission, but refuses to disclose it. Sasha is very animated, and teaches the other children dance moves to keep them entertained. Sveta is more headstrong and quick to rush into situations (contrasting with Fedya’s more reserved nature) and perhaps has some romantic feelings for Sasha. Between the three children, they have a good range of personalities, and at least one of them will appeal to children that the film was aimed at. Their interactions feel genuine in this extraordinary situation, and are generally likeable in their own way. There’s also a good balance between the children needing to act like adults, and also like children; such as when they complete their task running the spaceship, and immediately go get some ice cream from a nearby fridge.

    The ending of the film reveals that the entire mission is actually just a simulation for the children to test their abilities. Fedya initially works it out, but keeps it secret for the remainder of the mission. You might think this is a bit underwhelming and disappointed that the children do not actually go into space…and in fact, that’s why actual soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov appears at the end of the film saying this exact thing. He also says that the time will come soon (?) when children will really go into space, and encourages children to continue looking forward to it and chasing their dreams, which is nice. The film also rewards the children for the completion of the simulation with a celebration and fanfare, so it still feels rewarding, and as if the characters accomplished something.

    The quality of the sets and production values of the film certainly deserve some mention. The set of the spaceship is detailed, and the shots of the ship travelling through space are quite convincing given the time it was released. the model shots of the spaceship and other things also have quite a lot of detail in them. The whole aesthetic evokes the look of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I’m sure is no coincidence. Given that the play the film is based on is called The First Three, or the Year 2001, it would certainly there’s a connection, but whether it is an homage, a parody, or knock-off, I’m not sure. The film was also apparently in production for two years, which I think shows in the look of the finished product. There’s also some musical interludes which don’t really fit in too well, but again probably something children would enjoy. Most notably, the song’s were written by a young Alexey Rybnikov, who would become one of the Soviet Union’s and subsequently Russia’s most famous composers, apparently in no small part due to the popularity of the soundtrack of this film.

    Overall, A Great Space Journey is a fun little adventure that I’m sure its target audience would have enjoyed. The film is well constructed, and great effort had obviously been taken to make detailed and engaging sets. The characters themselves are relatable and distinct, without being too much of walking tropes, and the story has plenty of things going on in it, even if it lacks direction or purpose sometimes. It packs in a fair amount of detail and adventure in just over sixty minutes, and with some decent editing, always has something interesting going on.

  • Film reviews

    #363 – Solaris (1968)

    Solaris (1968)

    Film review #363

    Directors: Boris Nirenburg, Lidya Ishimbayeva

    SYNOPSIS: Dr. Chris Kelvin has arrived on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. When he arrives, he finds that his colleague is dead, and the two remaining crew are acting strange. Things get even stranger when his wife, who died ten years ago, seemingly appears on the station with no memory of what happened to her. He learns that people important to each of the crew appear to them, and this is somehow connected to the planet Solaris below them. Chris and the other crew must try to determine how these people have come to be on the station, and indeed if they are real…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISSolaris is a 1968 TV film based on the novel of the same name. It is the first adaptation of the book, but the least well known, having been overshadowed by the 1972 Tarkovsky version, generally considered to be a masterpiece of cinema, and to a lesser extent the 2002 version, which saw widespread release. The film opens up with Chris Kelvin, an astronaut and scientist, docking his shuttle with the space station orbiting the planet Solaris. When he arrives, he finds a peculiar set of circumstances, with his old friend and colleague dead having apparently committed suicide, and the two remaining crewmembers being extremely vague as to what is happening on the station. The film’s plot unfolds slowly, with the mystery being slowly unravelled while new complications are constantly added. It is rather similar to the other two films versions, so I will assume it follows the plot of the novel with some accuracy. It’s slow-paced, but it fits the story well, since it gives the viewer space to reflect on the themes that the film is exploring.

    Upon finding his wife, who died ten years ago, seemingly alive and well on the station, he realises that each crewmember has had someone personal appear to them. They suspect it has something to do with Solaris attempting to communicate with them, and somehow reaching into each of their subconscious’ and materialising a person within. This is one of the primary themes of the film, and the means of communicating with an entity or being that is completely unlike anything that could be encountered on Earth. It is explained decently, and explored primarily through Chris’ relationship with Harrie, or the facsimile that has been created, which leads to the distinction between the real and fake being increasingly blurred. It doesn’t have the style and depth of the Tarkovsky version, but this no-frills version still gets its message across. A lot of the film does focus on Chris and Harrie, and it seems like a lot of the science-fiction emphasis is sidelined in favour of the film being more of a drama. We never get to see the people ‘created’ for the other crewmembers or get any clue to who they are, so that leaves an odd mystery that will never be solved (in this version anyway). This further reinforces the main relationship between Chris and Harrie, again emphasising their drama more than the larger concepts of the film.

    Even though this version doesn’t have the budget or vision of the Tarkovsky version, it still gets the story across well. Instead of elaborate sets and design, we see a rather sparse looking space station which instead emphasises a feeling of isolation, and gives the film a more horror-vibe at times. This is not a bad adaptation by any means: it delivers the story well, explains what’s going on clearly most of the time (there are some points, particularly near the end, that it gets a bit confusing), and explores its themes with a decent depth. However, given the 1972 Tarkovsky version is such a stellar adaptation and work of cinema, there is really not much value in watching this version, as everything in it is done so much better there. Overall, a decent adaptation, but completely eclipsed by its successor.

  • Film reviews

    #24 – Stalker (1979)

    Stalker (1979)

    Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

    Another science-fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, exploring the mysterious “Zone”…

    In a home, we find a wife and child of The Stalker: A man who is hired by people to lead them through “The Zone”: A strange place where the laws of physics no longer apply. Within The Zone, there is a place called The Room, where people can go to get there one true wish fulfilled. The Stalker’s wife pleads with him not to go again to that dangerous place, but he ignores her pleas.

    Stalker is hired by two men to escort them to The Zone. At a local bar, he meets the men, calling themselves “Professor” and “Writer”, who wish to find The Room and make their wish. The three set off through a military blockade that surrounds The Zone, avoiding patrols and gunfire, and finding a railcar to take them into The Zone itself…

    The three arrive in The Zone, which resembles an overgrown area of countryside, with ruined debris scattered around. The lack of any sound gives it away that there is something not quite right about where they are. Stalker tells Professor and Writer to follow his instructions exactly, or they will be killed. He ties nuts/bolts to pieces of cloth, and throws them in the direction he works out is the best way to travel, to test out the safety of the route. The Writer is constantly skeptical of The Stalker’s odd actions, but The Professor generally follows his advice.

    The two men have different reasons for visiting The Room. The Writer finds himself lacking in inspiration to write, and is hoping he can re-ignite his passions, while The Professor is hoping he can win the Nobel Prize. The Stalker mentions his mentor, Porcupine, who lead his Brother to death in The Zone, and wished for riches in The Room. However, a week later, he hung himself.

    After travelling via a route of overgrown fields, underground tunnels and sand filled rooms, the three arrive outside The Room. There, a strangely placed phone begins to ring. the Writer answers and tells the person on the other end “This is not the clinic” and hangs up. Next, The Professor dials a number on the phone to brag to someone on the other end, and hangs up. The Stalker warns them both that The Room does not grant the wish they ask aloud, but it grants the true unconscious wish that resides deep within them. After this, the Professor reveals the real reason he came to The Room: He pulls out a bomb, saying that the power to grant wishes could be used for evil and terrible deeds, and because man should not have such power, needed to be destroyed. The three fight physically, and after a while, the Professor backs down from his plan, and the three sit down on the ground in defeat, none of them wishing to head into The Room and dare to have their wishes fulfilled…

    Back in town, the three men are sitting in the bar where they first met. Stalker’s wife comes in and sees a dog that had got attached to Stalker and had followed him out of The Zone. Stalker then leaves the bar with his wife, the dog, and his child “Monkey”, who it was hinted at the start of the movie and now confirmed that she cannot walk on her legs without support (apparently she was born this way, and is a consequence of her father being a Stalker).

    At home, Stalker’s wife tells him she has considered visiting The Room herself. Now, Stalker is having doubts about The Zone’s nature, and worries that her wishes would not be fulfilled. In a monologue to the camera, the Wife talks about whether she should leave Stalker, and the choices she has made by staying with him. She eventually re-confirms her commitment to him, while in the kitchen, Monkey sits at the table reciting a poem, she them apparently moves three glasses with the power of her mind (psychokinesis), and after the third glass falls to the floor, a train is heard going past the house, which causes it to shake…

    A bit of background about this movie…this is another movie by Andrei Tarkovsky, most famously known for his 1972 movie Solaris. A lot of the production techniques used in that movie, such as long shots, steady camera motions, a slowly revealed plot, and a sparse and minimal soundtrack, were according to Tarkovsky himself much more refined in Stalker. Again, similar to Solaris, the movie is based on a novel, this one being Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. The film deviates massively from the novel though, so much so that the only thing they really have in common are the terms “Stalker” and “Zone”. I think Tarkovsky took the novels concept as a base and applied his established style of filmmaking to it.

    There is very little background and detail dedicated to the origins and mysteries of The Zone, why the military has surrounded it, and suchforth. Tarkovsky has expressed his dislike of western science-fiction, which focuses on flashy technology and quick changes in narratives and scenes. Stalker has a slowly revealed narrative that focuses on these three men as if they are the only people that matter. There discourse in some of the longer scenes reveals the impact of The Zone and it’s potential for the human race, and I think this is where Tarkovsky wants uis to focus our attention: On the conscious and unconscious aspects of human nature, and the insecurities and desires, both on the surface and deep within us, that makes us human.

    Apparently, Tarkovsky went through 5000 metres of film while making this movie, and that isn’t a surprise when the movie has a runtime of over two and a half hours. Tarkovsky says with regards to the pacing at the beginning that “The film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.” The fact that we have to wait nearly ten minutes into the film before we get the first bits of spoken daialogue is certainly proof of that. Also, I think Tarkovsky’s definition of “action” and ours is probably different, in a similar way to which our definition of science-fiction doesn’t perhaps match up to what happens in this film.

    The world portrayed in Stalker is a ruined and desolate one, and it is easy to see why people would want to face the dangers of The Zone in order to get their wish granted. The world outside The Zone is filmed with a harsh sepia tone, and while one may instinctively associate sepia with nostalgia, here it is solely to highlight the grim and dull reality. When the film transistions to The Zone however, the world is in full colour, and the greens of the Eastern European countryside are revealed to us.

    On a bit of a prophetic note; about seven years after making this film, the nuclear accident at Chernobyl occured, and the area which was affected by the radiation was officially called the “Zone of alienation”. It should be noted that the workers who are employed to work in the abandoned nuclear plant refer to themselves as “stalkers”, so clearly this movies image of empty and desolate wastelands found an equivilent in a real world disaster.

    If you enjoyed Solaris and the cinematic techniques it employed, you will no doubt find Stalker of interest as well. However, if you have preconceptions about science-fiction being full of quick paced scenes, special effects and action, then perhaps this isn’t the movie for you. I think watching Solaris first is a good idea, since it somewhat bridges the gap between more traditional science-fiction and Tarkovsky’s own unique style of storytelling.

  • Film reviews

    #14 – The Death Ray (1925)

    The Death Ray (1925)

    Film review #14

    Director: Lev Kuleshov

    A Soviet sci-fi spy thriller from the 20’s packed with action…

    In an unnamed “fascist” country, Tomas Lann is imprisoned at a “helium factory”, but manages to escape during a revolt. He flees to the home of Professor Podobed, where he wishes to get the “death ray” he has been working on to fight the fascists. However, one of the fascists, Father Revo, breaks into the Professor’s home and steals the death ray. Lann then chases down another one of the fascists named Fog in order to get the death ray back.

    First, I should note that there is no English translation for this film, so my understanding of the movie is a bit limited, and as you can see from the stills above, the only surviving copy of the film is a bit poor in quality. Nevertheless, ever since I heard about this movie, I’ve wanted to watch it. Apparently, there are portions of the movie missing as well, which makes it even harder to understand the narrative.

    This movie offers a different take on filmmaking in the 1920s. Before even Metropolis was released, The Death Ray (Luch Smerti in Russian) was released in the USSR, a film by “popular” Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov. Film making in the USSR at this time was tightly regulated by the government, and apparently this film was criticized greatly by them because of a lack of soviet propaganda, and it was too “American” in terms of its production, with a lot of focus on stunts and action.

    On that subject, the sheer amount of action in this movie is insane. The actors are jumping from 3-story buildings, hanging from wires suspended on rooftops, crashing through tables and doors, jumping from moving cars, falling down stairs and even running towards oncoming trains and lying down on tracks in front of them, with the train changing tracks at the last second. Now, I’m pretty sure there were no stunt doubles in this movie (or at all back then), so these actors must have been made of strong stuff, and had no sense of fear when filming these sequences. The action takes place in car chases, bike chases, and even a plane sequence, all culminating in a gun/knife fight at the end. Perhaps one of the reasons it is hard to follow the plot is because there is a lot more emphasis on action.

    Throughout the film, the so-called “facist nation” is labelled as the antagonist of the film, and although no actual name is given to it, the use of swastikas throughout the movie by them strongly indicates that it is probably Germany or a mid-Europe country. This of course, would serve the USSR regime of painting the Europeans as an enemy of the soviet union rather nicely. Obviously the nazi movement was still in its early stages in 1925, but clearly it was still something the USSR wasn’t very keen on. Looking back on it in the present, we can see this film in the wider context of soviet life, and how they perceived other countries. Another interesting aspect to this is the leader of the fascist nation: Father Revo, is seen as a religious leader. This again puts it in line with the soviet objective of eliminating religion, and portraying the antagonists as religious in this movie tows the USSR’s policy very well.

    The film ends with Lann retrieving the death ray and using it on the enemy fighter planes, and finally liberating the prisoners of the factory where he first escaped. Though we never get a close look at the death ray (It is always locked up in a box), the idea of such a weapon being used to bring down the enemies of the USSR was a nice way to end a movie like this which was used as propaganda by the government.

    Apparently this movie was also screened in America, though it is difficult to find where and when. I wonder what Americans thought of such a movie, riddled with the Hollywood action sequences and developed on the other side of the world? Either way, the death ray is a rare example of soviet cinema that may lack in plot, but more than makes up for it in terms of action.