Monday, July 11, 2011

Road to the Stars

Last Friday, the day of the launch of the last space shuttle, and the end until who knows when of the United State’s capability to send human beings into space, I went the British Film Intitute to watch a marvellous old Russian film about space travel, Pavel Klushantsev’s Road to the Stars -- shown with a documentary, The Star Dreamer, that provided useful historical context and a nice overview of Klushantsev’s career.

Klushantsev began to make Road to the Stars in 1954. He’d started his career in a Leningrad studio making documentaries, and The Road to the Stars begins in straight-forward documentary style, with a dramatised biography of the father of astronautics, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and a sequence on early experiments in rocketry that establishes the basic physics of spaceflight. Then, without changing style (or the portentious narrator), the film jumps into the future. Ingenious special effects, with meticulously detailed models and sets, and realistic depictions of cosmonauts manoeuvring in free fall (amongst other tricks, Klushantsev shot actors hung on wires from below, and used a revolving set), are deployed to show the launch of the first three cosmonauts into space, the construction and operation of a space station in low Earth orbit, mapping the Moon’s surface by a robotic surveyor, and the first manned flight to the Moon. Some of the scenes allegedly influenced Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Just before Road to the Stars was finished, in 1957, Sputnik 1 went into orbit. The Russian authorities insisted that Klushantsev insert material about Earth’s first artificial moon, and gave his film a wide release. Space was the next big thing; the Soviet red star was in the ascendent; Road to the Stars was, as far as the authorities were concerned, a prime piece of propaganda. More than a million people saw it in Russia; it was screened in twenty- two other countries. Segments shown by Walter Cronkite on the CBS evening news allegedly galvanised the American participants in the space race. Road to the Stars seemed like a blueprint for the Soviet conquest of space: space travel as an inevitable step in the evolution of Russia’s socialistic scientific utopia, proceeding by logical steps to the Moon, with journeys to other planets soon to follow.

It’s a future we didn’t get, of course. America won the race to the Moon; Nixon cancelled a programme to build rockets that would send astronauts to Mars; after the last Apollo mission, no human being has ventured beyond low Earth orbit. Klushantsev went on to make a full-length feature film about the first expedition to Venus, Planet of the Storms, that showcased more marvellous special effects, but ran into trouble when a commissar objected to the tears of a female cosmonaut (‘No Soviet cosmonaut would cry’). His film was given a restricted release; the script for the next, about a race to the Moon involving Russian, American and German spacecraft that ended in peace and harmony, was rejected. He made further documentary-style films about space travel (scenes from one about Mars, with giant animated flowers and a dog in a dog-shaped spacesuit, look wonderful) but retired a disappointed man, more or less forgotten until American special-effects artist Robert Skotak tracked him down, just before his death in 1999.

Unsurprisingly, some of scenes in the film seem quaint (nothing dates like the future), but it’s infused with warmth and charm, and its cheery optimism about the benefits of space exploration and colonisation outshines the occasional passages of naked propaganda. At the end of Road to the Stars, two cosmonauts descend a spacecraft’s ladder to the Moon’s surface. There’s a close-up of the first tentative step, and the bootprint it leaves.

But there’s no solemnity; no tick-box of tasks to be performed. The cosmonauts dance out across the surface, and when they see the Earth floating above the Moon’s mountains, they embrace each other with glee, overwhelmed with amazement and happiness at being on the Moon. It’s a wonderfully touching moment, reminding us that although robot spacecraft have and still are sending back amazing pictures and reams of data, the old-fashioned notion of human exploration, while perhaps foolishly and unrealistically romantic, still stirs emotions no robot can reach.

 (You can watch the whole film, without subtitles, here.)

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