To the BFI Southbank last night, to see two more films in the BFI's excellent Kosmos: A Soviet Space Odyssey.
The first, Mars
(1968), was the last major film made by director Pavel Klushantsev (Road to the Stars
) before his contract with Odessa Studios was terminated in 1972, and he was forced into retirement. I was looking forward to seeing Mars
because a couple of clips in the documentary that accompanied the screening of Road to the Stars
showed a wonderfully gonzo alien scenario complete with cosmonaut dog in a dog-shaped spacesuit. Well, the dog didn't disappoint, but the bulk of the film is a lively but badly dated educational documentary showing that you can prove anything by analogy -- even, in 1968, after Mariner 4 showed Mars to be a battered hostile world lacking any of the romance implied by Percival Lowell's 'canals',
the presence of higher forms of Martian life. Klushantsev's depictions of possible variations of life on Mars are marvellous, however, and the brief portrayal of a lifeless Mars is startlingly close to close-up images beamed back by the Viking landers and other American robots.
Toward Meeting A Dream
, from 1963, is a more conventional science-fiction film in which aliens from a nearby star are attracted to Earth by the broadcast of a particular piece of music, crashland on Mars, and are rescued by hero cosmonauts. The special effects (re-used by American director Curtis Harrington in his SF potboiler Queen of Blood
) depicting both Mars and the alien world and its advanced technology are state-of-the-art, as good as anything in Forbidden Planet
, and the Russian space facilities on the Earth and Moon are equipped with all kinds of realistic hardware, but as for the story and characters . . . well, let's just say Soviet SF cinema operated on conventions at a slant to Western expectations. During a conversation afterwards, Kim Newman (who has seen most of the films in the BFI's season) and I identified the following Rules for Successful Soviet SF:
(1) There must be a stirring song, repeated at intervals, and written by one of the characters.
(2) There is no real plot beyond depictions of the selfless heroism of the characters, but a narrator will fill in any holes in the story.
(3) There is no plot because there must be no conflict or violence: problems are solved by application of idealism and logic rather than fists and rayguns. In Toward Meeting A Dream
, an American scientist argues that aliens approaching Earth may be hostile and bent on conquering the human race, and is, at the end, very publicly humiliated.
(4) Characters are differentiated by random tags, and there must be no character development (because that would imply that the Soviet heroes possessed flaws which must be corrected). So if you're, say, a chess-playing joker at the beginning of the film, for the rest of the story you'll be carrying a chessboard and, when your comrades refuse to play you because they know you're the best chess-playing cosmonaut in the universe, you'll make a joke about it.
(5) As in American SF of the period, the only female character on the ship operates the switchboard.
(6) If a character dies, it will turn out that the whole story was not only a dream, but it was his
dream. And at the very end, some element of it will come true.
(7) Pack all this into a film less than an hour long, either to make room for the main feature, or for a two-hour documentary on pig-iron production in Kazakhstan.