Lilac Ball (1987)
Film review #501
Director: Pavel Arsenov
SYNOPSIS: Travelling aboard their spaceship Pegasus, Professor Selznyova, his daughter Alisa and the rest of the crew encounter Selznyova’s old friend Gromozeka. He explains that he has come from a planet where the population has just been wiped out by a virus that has lain dormant for 26,000 years. The problem is that the same virus was also left on earth, and will activate and wipe out the population in a matter of days unless a cure can be found…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Lilac Ball is a 1987 children’s sci-fi film based on the novel by Kir Bulychyov. The story starts out aboard the spaceship Pegasus, manned by Professor Selznyova and his crew, including his daughter Alisa. On their travels, they come across the Professor’s friend Gromozeka, who tells them that a 26,000 year old dormant virus has just awakened and wiped out the entire population of a planet…and the same virus is on Earth and will activate in a few days time unless a cure can be found. The only solution is to send Alisa back in time to Earth 26,000 years ago to find the source of the virus. The most notable thing about the film is that it is pretty much an even split between science-fiction and fantasy: almost exactly at the halfway point, the spaceship and future gives way to an ancient Earth filled with fantasy creatures. With a runtime of seventy three minutes, the film certainly packs in a lot of stuff, combining that familiar soviet-era sci-fi aesthetic with some more offbeat fantasy creations. As a film aimed at children, it has to keep up a certain energy level to keep it entertaining, and I think it has plenty of imagination and variety to keep things interesting. The plot is quite packed as mentioned, and is a bit overwhelming to follow. Part of that might be the loose subtitles I watched the film with, and part of it is probably due to the fact that a lot of the original novel was cut to fit it into this fairly short runtime. Intricacies within the plot aren’t too problematic with children’s films though, as long as there’s plenty of jumping off points to spark their imaginations, which I think this film has.
Alisa is the main character of the film, and had appeared in the TV series Guest from the Future in 1984 before this film was made (and portrayed by the same actress). I believe that there is also a series of novels centred around her character, so she’s fairly well established, and it is refreshing to see a good female lead in these types of films. The rest of the characters serve a supporting role, and are a colourful bunch, again split between the more grounded characters in the sci-fi setting, and the fantasy half, where the characters are a bit more outlandish. The earth of 26,000 years ago is probably not very accurate, as there are talking birds, flying monsters, people in wooden houses and other such things which I do not think are historically accurate.
As mentioned, the sci-fi aesthetic feels very familiar if you have watched any other soviet-era sci-fi. The spaceship’s corridors and control panels have that typical look and feel of the time, but have a lot of detail and attention in them that is visually appealing. The spaceship itself is quite a unique design: it is a disc shape with retractable “sails” that resemble paper fans. The scenes with the spaceship flying around evading capture from this giant net…ship…thing is quite well done. I noticed the camera is a bit wobbly as it moved through the sets, which is a bit distracting. Moving into the more fantasy setting, the designs of the creatures reminds me very much of something out of The Neverending Story or Labyrinth, which makes me wonder if they inspired some of the decisions at any point. Lilac Ball has a bit of a dark edge like the aforementioned films, with a trio of comic relief characters being cannibals, and this rather disturbing death scene of this giant bird thing that we follow for about five minutes before it is killed on screen and we are left looking at it’s dying breath. Very odd. Some of the creatures aren’t quite as imaginative as in the novels, probably due to technical and budgetary constraints. Gromozeka is a humanoid-looking alien with four arms for example, but in the original novels, he was much more alien looking, with seven eyes and such. A 2009 partial-remake of this film that, due to it being animated, was able to be much more creative with it’s designs (it even had Alisa’s actress from this film returning to voice Alisa’s mother, which is nice).
Overall, Lilac Ball is an odd combination of science-fiction and fantasy that isn’t really a combination: the film is evenly split between the two. trying to fit these two genres, and a full novel’s worth of plot into such a short runtime creates a story that can be difficult to follow. The film constantly feels like it’s being constrained by one thing or another, but there’s plenty of things going on to keep it entertaining for children, it’s just a shame there’s not enough time or space given to appreciate them.