I always loved foreign films. I mean, I always loved crappy American SF films of course, but I always loved crappy foreign SF films a bit more. They were a treat - a tiny glimpse into a future that was no more plausible than the crap we were churning out, but it was implausible in a different way. It was still crap, mind you, but it was a different ethos of crap. No better, generally, but a nice refrain from Japanese rubber suit monsters and endless cardboard spaceships in the desert and insects-on-HO-Scale-Trainsets giant monster flicks.
Honestly, were it not for crappy Italian SF movies and the occasional Matt Helm flick on Sunday afternoons, I probably wouldn’t have survived my pre-adolescence.
So today we’ve got another of these rare gems, and another one that I’d never seen before. (Thanks to Neorandomizer for pointing it out to me!) In 1959, a Soviet film was made called “The Sky is Calling.” We won’t be reviewing that, as I’ve never seen it, and I’m betting you haven’t either. Instead, we’ll be reviewing the 1962 hatched-job version that was butchered by Roger Corman (of course) and a young Francis Ford Coppola, and released under the title “Battle Beyond the Sun.”
As with the other “Cormanized” Soviet flick we reviewed, “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” (which you can read here http://www.republibot.com/content/saturday-morning-b-movie-crapfest-%E2%80%9Cvoyage-prehistoric-planet%E2%80%9D-1965 ) this one has your normal song/dance/seltzer down the pants treatment you’d expect: The movie is chopped up, some new scenes are shot and ham-fistedly inserted in the story, it’s all badly dubbed and ‘Americanized’ as much as it can be, and then foisted off on an unsuspecting public consisting mostly of horny teens looking for a dark room to make out in. That said, this one isn’t brutalized nearly as badly as “Planeta Bur” was when it became “Prehistoric Planet,” nor is it nearly so incoherently slapped together, and I give all the credit for that to Mr. Coppola.
PLAY BY PLAY
It is 1997. “Following the Nuclear Wars” the world is divied up into two meganations: “North Hemis” and “South Hemis.” The North Hemis are the evil, fascist, autocratic types who live in the Northern Hemisphere, while the South Hemis are good and live in the other hemisphere (The non-Northern one). Or so we’re told. We never really come across anything that really shows one side to be better or worse than the other, but I digress.
We’re told that both of these nations are in a mad dash to get to Mars. There’s at least one space station, possibly more, but no one has apparently been to the Moon yet, however in the best stupid traditions of “Conquest of Space” ( http://www.republibot.com/content/saturday-afternoon-b-movie-crapfest-%E2%80%9Cconquest-space%E2%80%9D-1955 ) they decide to save themselves the trouble of landing on the moon and ignoring it for the next 35 years or so, and simply go straight to the red planet instead. (And when you think about it, that’s effectively what we’re doing as well. It’s been so long since we’ve been to the moon that we’re effectively starting our space program over from scratch).
After a long and boring series of forgettable character introductions and some neat tracking shots through some surprisingly large sets in “Space Headquarters,” a shuttle launches to the Space Station, where the Mercury, the first interplanetary spacecraft, has been built in secret. There’s a character who’s called “Ruth Gordon” in the film, but of course she’s not the *real* Ruth Gordon, just some Ruskie chick that had an American-sounding name slapped on her, so really nothing funny comes of it. Anyway, people walk around some more impressively large sets for a bit, have a few boring conversations that come to nothing, and then a damaged spaceship piloted by two “North Hemis” guys shows up, asking to make repairs.
Because they’re good people, unlike those Godless sucks up north, the South Hemis’s allow this, and they have dinner in a pretty cool set that looks not unlike the Seaview’s Missile Room turned upside down. The commander of the Mars Mission tells them what he’s up to, and shows them the Mercury.
Whoa, wait, excuse me? We’re told in the Narration that this whole thing has been done in secret so that the public won’t know about it if it fails (Very Soviet!), but now they’re just giving the whole thing away to a couple Americans - excuse me, “North Hemis’s” - who are obviously spies? What the frack?
Anyway, feeling a bit of an inferiority complex because their little shuttle dealie-whacker isn’t as big or impressively phallic as The Mercury is, they decide to clonk a guy on the head (why?) steal their own ship (why?) and fly to Mars in it (why?). Now, I realize there’s a lot of ‘whys’ in there, but I really have to stress the second one, since it’s their own ship. They could have just said “Well, nice space station you’ve got here, but Joey’s allergic to Borscht, so we’re gonna’ head back to the ISS. Thanks again for the use of the phone” and I’m sure no one would have thought twice about it, but nooooooo. No, they’ve got to beat up a guy who doesn’t even appear to have been a guard. As to why they try to go to Mars in a ship that clearly isn’t built for it - well, I’ve written elsewhere about how the yonical nature of the space shuttle tootling around in orbit has destroyed the territorial imperative we had back when we were flying great big phallic rockets. I totally get them feeling a bit intimidated. That much makes sense to me.
Anyway, so the North Hemis Hillbillies evidently head the wrong direction, head straight for Mister Sun, and get caught in its “Magnetic Field” (Screw all this gravity stuff!). The South Hemis’s, meanwhile, board their spacecraft (Which has some very obvious, badly done graphics optically printed on to the film to cover up the Cyrillic markings) and head off into the wild black yonder, when they get a distress call from the hillbillies. They decide to save them, because the world needs more hillbillies. (And it does, too!)
This they then do, rescuing the North Hemis Hilbillies moments before their ship goes blooey. They all head on to Mars, with nary a thought of the head-clubbing or the inherently half-assed nature of the NASA - excuse me, North Hemis - plan, which, from a scientific standpoint, is roughly the equivalent of attempting to get from California to Hawaii by driving a pickup truck. Unfortunately, they’ve used up most of their fuel, and can’t go all the way to Mars, so they land on “Planet Ankor” which is “In Mars orbit” (no, really!) and attempt to contact earth by flashlight (Really) because their radio is inexplicably out. Granted, it’s a really bright flashlight.
Earth sends a remote controlled robot-tanker, which crashes on Ankor, doing no one any good. They decide to send a man, rather than risking the life of another robot, and send one of the other Cosmonauts - excuse me, astronauts - from the start of the movie. There’s some kind of character arc there, but it’s so wispy-thin as to be almost nonexistent, and it’s really boring so I’m not going to go into it. Anyway, so he lands on Ankor, evidently without being noticed (Which is odd, since it’s pretty small). He gets out of his ship just in time to see….
You know what? No matter how prepared for this you may think you are, you’re really not ready for it at all. No, seriously, you’re just not.
He gets out of his ship just in time to see…
A Penis Monster attacking a Vaginasaurus!
[Pause for laughter and/or gasps of shock]
No, seriously, I’m not joking at all. Without getting too descriptive here, one of the monsters has long…uhm…thingies that it (he?) keeps poking at this other monster that has a sort of inverted with a kind of verti - you know what? No. Not gonna’ talk about that. The perverts among you - or those looking for a cheap laugh - will check it out, the prudish among you will obviously won’t, so no point in me discussing it here.
So anyway, the new Astronaut narrowly survives his encounter with the battling Penis Monster and the Vaginasaur (It’s a little vague exactly as to what happened, but I think it was the Vaginasaur what got him. The Penis Monster appeared to be on the losing end on their battle, and no, that’s not a double entendre.) They re-fuel the ship, and decide to head home, rather than landing on Mars, despite the fact that they’re less than 10,000 miles away, and have a perfectly-working space ship with a full tank of go-juice (Which is also not a double entendre).
This is treated as a victory because admitting it’s a defeat is simply not the Soviet - excuse me, South Hemis - way. The ship lands in the water, or possibly on a floating landing pad, people head over in boats to bring the crew back, there’s a parade with a whole lot of nubile chicks, their arms in the air, waving madly. You know, all propaganda aside, I’m willing to admit that for most of the 1960s and 70s, the Soviets were pretty far ahead of us in terms of space technology. It is clear from these final scenes, however, that they lagged embarrassingly behind us in razor technology. Either that, or every chick who turned out for the parade was some kind of earth-mother hippie chick. And really, how likely is that?
Anyway, having failed in as many ways as they can possibly think of, the hero goes to visit a ship, and the movie ends.
The Soviet original of this film was made in 1959, and “Planeta Bur” - which got meat-grindered into the sausage casing of “Prehistoric planet” was made in 1962. They were made by the same studio, and re-used some of the same sets and costumes. Most of the space suits were straight out of “Planeta” and all the space station shots from that film are stock FX shots from this one. Since there was really little of any interest going on onscreen, I found my mind drifting, and wondered if perhaps these movies were related. Is Planeta Bur a prequel to “The Sky is Calling?” There’s nothing in this film that says they hadn’t found life on Venus.
Of the two films - both pretty deadly dull, it must be told - “Planeta Bur” is the better of the two. They’ve got that cool hardtop convertible hovercraft, and that hilariously stupid looking robot, some underwater scenes, and crazy critters crittering around crazily. This movie doesn’t. Not any of that, really. This movie has some surprisingly cool sets, and it’s got the Penis Monster/Vaginasaur battle I guess, but it’s just not all that visually interesting. Not much cool stuff happens. I mean, the flick is only barely more than an hour long, and they don’t even get going until halfway through. It’s so slow you find yourself praying for a Ghiddorah attack or something.
The Soviet film was 77 minutes long. The American version is 64 minutes, plus there’s a three minute intro that obviously wasn’t part of the original film, so basically this flick is 16 minutes shorter than its pre-bowdlerized form. I can’t imagine much of a quality difference, however.
That said, I do think this movie generally follows the script/plot of the original. Of course the north/south nonsense wasn’t there - this is clearly a competition between the glorious Soviet’s march of progress, and those filthy stupid Americans, with their Mickey Mouse and their rock and roll music, and their irritating devotion to exploiting the workers. With this in mind, the idea of the Americans taking an orbital vehicle and heading out impulsively on a mission they’re clearly not intended for makes sense: they’re depicted as violent, incoherent, and self-destructively impetuous, needing to be rescued by their intellectual superiors from the east. Well, that’s the intention, anyway.
Several scenes were shot for this movie by Coppola, and inserted into it while he was re-editing the film and chopping it down. The prolog, composed almost entirely of stock footage of American rockets and spacecraft then in their design phases; some ‘map’ scenes explaining the North/South thing, one shot of a woman writing in English in a book, and of course the Penis Monster/Vaginasaurus battle. Basically second-unit stuff.
I don’t pretend to understand the monsters, really. Evidently, there were no monsters at all in the original version (Though something clearly scares the cosmonaut who gets injured on the moon, I have no idea what it was). Corman evidently told Coppola to throw in some monsters to spice it up a bit, and Coppola apparently decided - on his own initiative - to have the monsters made as dirty as possible. Even so, he directed all this under a pseudonym, so he must not have been entirely convinced the Vaginasaurus wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass later on in his career. Or maybe he just took his name off of it because the penis monster puppet didn’t really give as nuanced a performance as he was hoping for. Either way, he wasn’t exactly bragging about this one.
I also have no idea where the whole “Planet Ankor” thing came from. It’s clearly supposed to be Phobos ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phobos_(moon) ) There’s a shot of them on the surface, with the Soviet flag atop a hill, but Coppola has dialed down the colors in that part of the shot so low that you can barely notice it. There is an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous shot in this movie: Three space suited cosmonauts on Phobos as Mars rises over the horizon like the sun. It’s beautiful. I wish the color print were better so I could get more sense of what it was originally like.
Also, it should be mentioned that the title makes no sense. They're not "Beyond the Sun" except perhaps in the sense that they're not actually touching it at any point. Likewise, there's no battle, unless you count the Monster Genetalia Smackdown.
So when all is said and done, this is a pretty bad movie, and the original would appear to have been a pretty-but-bad movie. There is still something to like about it, however. There’s an optimism that’s kind of engaging, and an odd sense of humanity about it - that they’d essentially throw away a mission in order to save the lives of their idiot enemies. There’s also a scene of the idiot enemies realizing their idiocy, and heroically telling the Soviets (or South Hemis, or whatever) to save themselves and not risk a rescue. There’s one eye-popping visual, and some expansive sets and interesting set design. The cinematography - while not showey - is frequently better than it needs to be, and there’s a sense of elation that threatens to swamp the final scenes when they get back to earth.
Above and beyond all that, however, this is one of those rare movies where the heroes fail, and I always find that interesting. They fail, ultimately, because they value human life, which, of course, is something the Soviet Union never really particularly did. They refused to let people die if they could help it. I find that rather charming. The central issue is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the space race. Added to which there’s just something kind of refreshing and Sisyphusian in the telling of a story about a mountain that’s so big no one can hope to climb it, but they try anyway.
Dare insurmountable things, and even if you fail, you’re still a hero just for trying.
It’s a shame NASA can’t seem to learn that.
If you'd like to watch this movie - and I can't imagine why you would - the whole thing is online here http://www.archive.org/details/BattleBeyondTheSun