ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 10/03/09
Our unintended streak of grade-zed films that were actually surprisingly kind of good comes to a crushing end this week with the odd case of a film that - in its original form - was probably pretty good, too, but ended up a horrible, horrible muddle of a mess. And boring, too!
Back in 1946, the great Polish SF author Stanislaw Lem wrote his first book, “The Astronauts,” as a serial. The book - which I’ve never read - was a hit, and came out at a time when the Eastern Bloc were leaving the scars of World War II behind them, and seeing their standard of living go up a bit under the tutelage of their not-yet-widely-perceived-to-be-oppressive masters in the USSR. It was a brief Indian summer before the long cold war winter would ice over half the continent for the next forty years. At that time, however, it looked to most as if this “International communism” thing might actually work, and people were eagerly looking forward to the future world-state with some genuine optimism. Lem’s book fell right in to this narrow window, portraying a glorious-yet-plausible near-future not-quite-utopia where the commies have won, and the bad guys (That’s us) have learned the errors of our ways and gleefully joined the winning team.
Some things are world wide, however, and no sooner does any best seller come out than people start talking about filming the damn thing. Just like in Hollywood, if people talk about something long enough, it’ll happen. The result was “First Spaceship on Venus,” an East German/Polish flick made in 1960. It was the most expensive film made by the East German official state film studio, even though they had the Poles picking up some of the tab.
Released in early 1960, the film was *apparently* about 95 minutes long, and had a fairly lavish score written for it. I say “Apparently” because I can find very few specific details about this original cut, and I doubt I ever will be able to. It’s an unpopular 50-year-old bomb of a movie that no one cares about, so who’d waste time putting such stuff online? Aside from me, of course. Anyway, in 1962, the movie was chopped down to less than 80 minutes (!), badly dubbed, and its original soundtrack was dropped in favor of a lot of off-the-shelf stock music and random sound effects.
It’s the 1962 version I’ve seen.
PLAY BY PLAY
It is the distant future: The year 1985. The world is a bleak looking place with bad lighting, faded colors, and news anchor ladies with pronounced mustaches, but - we’re told - it’s much better than our world. While irrigating the Gobi Desert (Which looks like a quarry south of Gdansk), scientists find a rock which is clearly artificial, and we’re introduced to our main characters one after another, most of whom are more-or-less ciphers in the worst tradition of Star Trek. (Or perhaps I should say Trek is in the worst tradition of First Spaceship on Venus, since this movie came first.) There’s a Chinese mathematician; an Indian computer guy; a French engineer who looks the tiniest bit like Werner Klemperer, but - sadly - isn’t; a Japanese doctor lady; an American physicist or something; a different *kind* of American; a Polish guy who’s job is never clear; and an African dude.
The rock quickly turns out to be a Black Box recorder from an alien spacecraft that smacked in to earth in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, and the force of the explosion threw this bit all the way to the Gobi, 500 miles away. Eventually the Indian and Chinese dudes are able translate a bit of it as scientific information about our atmosphere.
A space ship - the Cosmostrator - was being built to go to Mars, but in 1960 no one knew how laughably different Mars is from Venus, so they decide to load all these people on the ship with no training, change the flight plan, and go to the second planet instead. This they then do. En rout, we have the obligatory mid-century space flick run-in with meteors, the obligatory tense (Read: Boring) spacewalk scene to fix the damage, and a bit of romantic tension between the younger American and the Japanese lady. We’re told that the American and her dead husband served on the moonbase together, and the American brought back her husband’s body. We’re also told, in no uncertain terms, that he’s hot for her, which is a bit…uhm…inappropriate? “Hi, Sumiko, here’s your husband’s dead body. Got anything to drink? Thanks. Say, since you’re obviously not doing anything tonight, you wanna’ go see a movie?” The implication that they had some kind of romantic past makes it all the more muddled: “Hi, Sumiko, here’s your husband’s dead body. Glad that whole romantic triangle thing resolved itself. Wanna’ go get loaded?” I digress.
Anyway, they get to Venus, send down a lander to recon for a safe spot, and this promptly explodes, however the American pilot survives with is slow-witted robot, and promptly get caught in a cave with a bunch of robot bugs. The Cosmostrator lands, and he’s recovered without incident. By this point, they’re out of contact with earth, and have discovered the Black Box message clearly states the Venusians were planning to invade earth. They find some power lines (The lander landed atop ‘em), and follow them to the ruins of a town. In the town, they discover Alien Invasion HQ, and get attacked by The Blob (In an uncredited cameo), but manage to escape. Meanwhile, a golf ball changes color, threatening to reverse gravity and hurl the Cosmostrator back in to space.
The American Pilot, the African Dude, and the Chinese Mathematician are set back off to…uhm…do something, it’s never quite clear, but it appears that in fighting The Blob in the ruins, they somehow…uhm…sealed all their fates…in some…uhm…fashion. Honestly, I’ve got no idea. Anyway, those three run off to un-do what they did before, which, apparently, they accomplish I guess, but this is pretty nebulous as well. Gravity reverses, and the Cosmostrator is hurled off in to space again, sans these three.
The ship gets back to earth, and we’re told they learned much but at great cost.
The movie starts in 1985, the book starts in 2002. Curiously, the characters aren’t re-assigned as randomly as you’d expect in a dubbing job this badly. I’d assumed the “American” commander of the mission was a soviet who’s name and nationality were changed for US audiences, but no, he’s American in the original version as well. The Frenchman is, however, apparently a soviet Cosmonaut in the original cut, and said to be the first man on the Moon. The younger American pilot - “Brinkman” - in the US version is said to be the first man on the Moon, obviously re-assigning their backstories a bit, not that it matters much in a film this bad. Curiously, “Brinkman” is German in the original version.
In common with the book, the world appears to be in the midst of unprecedented international cooperation, though the only one of the massive engineering projects from the book to be mentioned is the Gobi Desert Irrigation Project.
It must be said that the Cosmostrator looks pretty sweet. Here’s a picture http://www.starshipmodeler.com/news_062004_WIL_Cosmostrator.JPG I really like the three outrigger engine nacelles. There’s also a maneuverable spotlight in the nose. Definitely a sense of style there. Terrible movie, but it’s always been one of my favorite space ships.
The little helicopter/tractor they use in the story is kind of clever - the rotor blade rolls up when not in use, and when spun, centrifugal force unwinds it. I doubt that would actually work, but it’s a neat idea.
Owing to the low budget, of course, they have artificial gravity in the ship. Aside from that, however, they do try to be fairly scientifically accurate, and I have to give mad props to this film for having the ONE logically designed airlock that I’ve EVER seen in an SF movie: It’s a rotating cylinder set in the hull. The cylinder has one door in it. When it’s pointing inward, the astronaut goes in to it, then the cylinder rotates until the door is pointing OUTWARD. Since there’s only one door, it’s physically impossible to have both the inside and outside open at the same time. Finally, someone gets it! (For the record, not even NASA uses airlocks as well designed as the one in this movie)
The spacesuits need work, and the snoopy caps are laughable, but I do actually like the helmets they use in the film. They’re logical, and look real enough.
Venus is depicted as having a poisonous atmosphere consisting of CO2 and Formaldehyde. It’s unclear if this was *always* the case, or if it was the result of the apocalypse that struck the planet. Either way, the planet is dead now, aside from some seeds taken back to earth, and some robot bugs that the younger American found in the cave. Exactly what the Blob is was never made clear, but it very well may not be a life form, since it was somehow tied to the…uhm…invasion machinery, I guess.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the last act of the film is incomprehensible. I have no idea what the problem was, why the three guys who died ran off to do, or whether or not they accomplished it. I’m assuming most of the sixteen minutes chopped from the film came from this section, and probably would have explained a lot of it. Then again, maybe not: to say this film was written by committee is a polite understatement: there were 12 scripts written by 3 separate teams. The plot, as best I can reconstruct it is this: Venusians - probably Capitalists - decided to invade earth, and built a great big beam projector the size and shape of a forest to fry earth the next time we came close to each other, thus killing all life here. Eventually, when it stopped glowing, the Venusians would Xenoform our planet as needed, and import Venusian life prior to colonization. Something went wrong, however, and they ended up destroying their own planet at some point between 1908 and 1985. Exactly what, how, and why is unclear, but evidently they wiped out their own species by accident, and trashed their own planet. I have no idea what all that ‘increase/reversal of gravity’ nonsense is about, however.
I haven’t mentioned it elsewhere, so this seems as good a place as any to mention that this is a deadly dull film. Nothing really happens, and at a ponderous pace. The dubbing of some of the characters falls in to what I like to call the “Helena Russell” school of voice acting, which is to say that the smarter a person is, the quieter they talk. With that, the bland background noises, and the washed out colors, the movie has a very strong Video Valium quality to it, and most people I know - myself included - start drooping off around 20 or 30 minutes in. By the time all the running around and intermittent screaming begins in the last act, you’re so far gone you really wish they’d keep it down. Then you wake up and say “That didn’t make any damn sense,” which you attribute to falling asleep in the movie, so you watch it again, and - zonk - you’re out again. If you watch it in installments, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that the ending makes no sense. Certainly Stanislaw Lem thought so. He took his name off this cut of the film. I don’t know what he thought of the other version.
That said, there are several aspects of this film that I really like, at least in theory if not in execution: The film is very dedicated to the idea that Racism is bad. There’s an interracial romance between a Japanese girl and a German (Or American) guy, a black man is a prominent member of the crew, Chinese and Indian guys are integral members of the team, and no one ever comments on this. In 1960, even in the Soviet sphere of influence, this was very, very rare, and I have to give them props for it. (The Soviets gave a lot of lip service to racial equality, but in practice their society was pretty racist by our standards) This would be an example of the “Good” uses of propagandistic liberalism in SF film - showing positive qualities that even conservatives want to get across. The sets aren’t bad, and though the ruins of the Venusian city look fake, I think they’re deliberately supposed to. They seem to be going for a german Expressionist feel there. It doesn’t quite work, but I get what they were going for.
I also really like that several members of the crew die fairly abruptly and horribly at the end. I certainly didn’t think the young American could buy the farm, since it offers such an unsatisfying end to his creepy non-romance with the Japanese lady.
The Cosmostrator mission is covered on “Intervision,“ which was actually a real thing. It was the international network running in Eastern Europe. Frequently, I’ll bemoan the fact that Newscasters are selected more for their hair than their journalistic chops, that every talking-head woman on TV is too young, too pretty, and wearing too much makeup to be taken seriously. There’s a newscaster lady in this movie who…ahem…makes me more pleasantly disposed towards the flighty models we call “Newscasters” in this country. Her name is Lucyna Winnicka and evidently she had a long and successful career in her native Poland, but she’s not exactly a looker. I don’t want to be the guy who makes fun of women because of their looks - or lack thereof - but it is interesting that at no point in this production did anyone think to say, “Dude, the newscaster chick’s got some SERIOUS facial hair going on…” She reminds me a bit of the dude in drag in the Church video for “You’re Still Beautiful.” (Which is a pretty good song, anyway, check it out here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PscdNlD8vxs )
One annoying thing that nagged at me was the recurring theme of attempting to find life on Venus. Excuse me? Why is this a debate? You’ve got an alien recording from venus, the ruins of an alien city, the bug-bots, the blob thing, the atomic shadows of dead Venusians on the walls (Humanoid, btw) why are we even debating if life on Venus could exist, since evidence of it is all around?
As a last note, I’ll mention that most people - myself included - tend to remember this as a cautionary tale akin to Rocketship XM: Aliens blowed themselves up but good in a Nuclear War, so let that be a lesson to us to beat our swords in to plowshares and study war no more. In fact, that’s not the case here: If there’s a moral to this movie, I’m clueless as to what it is? That aliens are bad? That, if anything, we need to be *more* warlike to defend ourselves from outsiders? That we need fear no evil because our enemies will blow themselves up before they can harm us? I really have no idea. See if you can figure it out for yourself, the entire 1962 cut is available free online here http://www.archive.org/details.php?identifier=the_first_spaceship_on_venus
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?
All mentions of Communism have been purged from the film, and though it’s obviously internationalist and eastern European, I didn’t notice that as a kid. The leader of the expedition is American. There’s nothing really bad or offensive to Conservative sensibilities in the film. So, Sure, why not. If you can stay awake in it, you’ll probably like it fine.
[EDIT: When first published, this article said that the film was based on both "The Astronauts" and "The Man From Mars." Sharp-eyed reader Judge Deadd spotted this error, and pointed it out to me, so I've fixed it here. Sorry. 1/25/12]