Sunday, January 16, 2011

TO THE STARS BY HARD WAYS (Cheres ternii k zvyozdam, 1980)

Like many a Soviet sci-fi film, Richard Viktorov's two-part picture reached American audiences in compromised form, condensed into something called Humanoid Woman that later became fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was probably never going to get the respectful art-house treatment accorded Tarkovsky's Solaris because it clearly wasn't as ambitious a movie -- though its early focus on rustic family life in future Russia reminded me a little of the more famous film. I'm not sure whether Star Wars influenced the thing at all; if it did, it was in the use of comical robots, but the robots themselves look like the sort of creations you'd have seen decades before the Lucas film. Overall, Viktorov's story (the awkward English title translates a Russian tag that itself derives from the Latin motto per ardua ad astra) feels like a Soviet Star Trek, with a benevolent Earth-based interstellar entity setting things right around the galaxy.

Part One, "Niya:an artificial human" opens with a human exploratory vessel discovering an alien wreck in space. The ship doesn't match anything in their space atlas and doesn't respond to hails. Boarding it, the crew discovers dead bodies, some in pods, and one survivor, a female. She remembers nothing but her name, Niya. The commander, Sergei, takes the sullen, nearly mute Niya to the Council on Contacts, which isn't sure what to make of her. When a member tries to touch the young woman, he's repelled as if by a force field or telekinesis. This moves another member to observe, "This girl has the strength of a robot!" The council decides that Niya should acclimate herself to Earth as a guest at the dacha of Sergei's family, the Lebedevs, while council member Nadezhda Ivanova will observe and perform tests on her.

Niya (Yelena Metyolkina) reportedly set fashions for late-Soviet teenage girls in the 1980s. Below, in the future, it's the aliens who get probed.

The Lebedevs are a modern space-age family. Mother and father are scientists, while younger brother Stepan is a literal space cadet awaiting his first mission. They're serviced by all-purpose robot Glasha, who looks like a cross between Rosie from The Jetsons and a Dalek and, like other robots in the picture, spends a good deal of time kvetching. The film is most fantastic when it tries to convince us that Glasha, among other talents, is a demon on the tennis court. Even cooking looks like it'd be a challenge for the poor thing. It seems best suited for simpler tasks, like vacuuming the remains of a watermelon that Niya accidentally destroys off the kitchen floor.

Glasha (left)

Niya is understandably distressed by her sudden immersion in alien culture. Frightened by grass, she only slowly grows friendly if not entirely comfortable. She'll go out for a run or a tumble only to get freaked out by flowers or something else that triggers a partial memory of her past; then she'll run into the house and hide in a closet. Things get out of hand when Stepan, who is obviously cultivating a crush on Niya, brings home his girlfriend Selena, who is instantly jealous. Embarrassments pile up as Niya confusedly throws her clothes off at the beach, only to be ordered to put them back on by Nadezhda Ivanova, who has found a remote control receptor in Niya's brain. Initially apologetic to Selena, Niya abruptly decides that "you should not be" and is about to "carrie" her off a cliff before Nadezhda Ivanova gives a counter-order. Finding this plight intolerable, Niya throws herself off the cliff, but Stepan fetches her out of the water.

I don't often run nudie shots as blatant as this one of Niya (left), but I include this one with the note that To the Stars actually won an award for children's filmmaking.

Eventually, the arrival of diplomats from the planet Dessa triggers more memories. The planet happens to be her homeworld, and Stepan just happens to be making his maiden flight there. Niya stows away, confusing an old-time service robot, Crocodile, by her ability to teleport and leave Niya-shaped outlines behind. Crocodile looks like an overweight Cylon (original series) and needs to be inflated when he runs low on energy.

Crocodile the robot

Fortunately, the film itself is about to hit its stride in the second part, which takes place on Dessa itself -- a planet ravaged by generations of pollution to the brink of complete ecological collapse. While Dessa has called for help from advanced planets like Earth, a powerful faction actually opposes human intervention. Led by the sinister Turanchoks, this capitalist clique has exploited the air-quality crisis by commodifying oxygen. They're suspicious of the humans, whom they accuse of an imperialist agenda of remaking Dessa in their image. They sow distrust of the humans and Niya among the rabble, many of whom where Beneath the Planet of the Apes-style masks to hide disfigurements and project an air of general happiness. As the humans make progress in cleaning the planet, Turanchoks takes more desperate steps. He's also figured out Niya's weakness -- her susceptibility to remote control -- and he intends to use it to destroy her and the human spaceship.

Unwelcoming committees on Dessa

The film founders on the shoals of Turanchoks's master villainy. When a repentant lackey turns on him and blames him and his clique for the conditions that have caused every other birth to be defective, an enraged Turanchoks leaps from his chair to the table top to confront the traitor with the shocking fact that he's a dwarf! -- presumably a victim of his own pollutions. "You've never seen me before!" he concludes from the lackey's stunned expression. Well, the lackey has seen him in his chair, but couldn't venture a guess of his height from the visible evidence. The lackey learns something else important, however, when he tries to stop Turanchoks from activating Niya's remote control: the evil dwarf is ticklish! Tickling nearly wins the day for the forces of good, but a more loyal minion stabs the turncoat in the back. Poetic justice? You decide.

Turanchoks: The Revelation, featuring Vladimir Fyodorov (tabletop left)

With Niya now under his control, Turanchok seems to have the upper hand. However, he never bothered checking whether his former minion had died. Ignored, the victim crawls through corridors until he reaches the lab where Niya's creator had been working on a biomass project. It had been this noble scientist's hope that the biomass, infused with human intelligence, could clean up the planet on its own. For now, mindless, the biomass is a seething, bubbing mass of blecch that the moribund minion releases to avenge him. Set loose mindlessly, the biomass is not only a nemesis for Turanchoks but a threat to the entire planet and the humans on it. It might smother them all in slop if Niya can't come to her senses and use her amazing abilities when they'd count the most....

I'm willing to cut Viktorov's film some slack, in part because I'm charmed by the naive exoticism of the project and in part because it's at least a stab at sci-fi rather than space opera. It doesn't boil down to battling spaceships or even much in the way of physical combat apart from Turanchoks's struggle with his tickling nemesis. But there's no way I can say that it's a good film, though some may find it entertaining for some of the same reasons I did. It seems to have been considered a children's film by someone, despite Niya's nudity in the beach scene, and its accordingly simplistic, a fable with subtle pro-Soviet propaganda (we learn nothing about the form of the future government or its economic system) in its approval of benevolent intervention in another culture's affairs. It may be ironic to note that Cheres ternii was made at an early point in the USSR's occupation of Afghanistan, and that its advocacy of humanitarian intervention could easily be translated as an American neocon fable for the era of our own occupation of the same country. The propaganda, though, is subtle enough that it may only exist in my inference. To the Stars by Hard Ways is a harmless film that's best enjoyed, as many films are by wild-world-of-cinema tourists, as a document of its time and place in history -- one more amusing in retrospect because of how scary it once seemed.


Ninja Dixon said...

I haven't seen it, but I have the remixed soundtrack that the son of the director made some years ago. That was impressive stuff!

Alex B. said...

Damn, I was going to review this film soon, I even prepared exactly the same poster image to go with it...but you got there first))
Nice review, though!

The Vicar of VHS said...

This sounds great to me; I love the sci-fi vs. space opera distinction here, and the idea that it was viewed by some as a children's film. Indeed, some of the best loved classic science fiction (or if you prefer, "speculative" fiction) has at its base the same kind of moral-teaching and culture enforcing/commenting that is typically the purview of fairy tale and fable.

It's interesting how views on nudity as appropriate for children vary by culture, or at least used to. Then again, the PG rated 70s remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS had some unabashed nudity as well, and I don't think anyone squawked too much. :P

Samuel Wilson said...

ND: The Russico DVD boxcover says that the original soundtrack was a cult hit among Russians, so I'm not surprised that it's been remixed since then.

Alex: It's a cool poster and I'm curious to learn your own thoughts on the movie. Let's see that review soon.

Vicar:Niya's nudity comes across as comical and innocent even though it happens in a context of female rivalry over a boyfriend. Naked as she is, she doesn't exactly flaunt it; Selena in her bikini remains more provocative. But American culture is still too Puritan to accept a scene like that as suitable for kids. Even here though, as you note, movies were lated less strictly in the pre-Walmart, pre-Blockbuster days of the Seventies and early Eighties. Hence my nostalgia;}