Back to the Future

Lush fantasy retro uncovers Soviet alien history

This is why we have retro houses— to unleash, amid the handful of multiplex-squatting gargantua Hollywood overmanufactures for summer, the secret cinemas of the global past. Few high-powered legacies are as alien to us as the rarely screened fantasy cinema of the Soviet kingdom, with its ambitious-but-chintzy visual trickery and folkloric-yet-ideological stories. The only films made during the czars' pre-revolutionary era belong to, famously, Ladislaw Starewicz, meticulous stop-motion animations that primarily employ the husks of dead insects. After that, it's all politburo- approved pulp, beginning with A Spectre Haunts Europe (1922), a Crimean adaptation of Poe with a title borrowed from Marx, and Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924), the world's first space-travel melodrama (and anti-Martian-royalism screed) that's remembered most fondly as an orgasm of Suprematist set and costume design. It was so popular it immediately garnered a cartoon satire, Interplanetary Revolution (1924), but it was another dozen years before the culture ministers approved another sci-fi saga, Cosmic Voyage (1936), and got for their troubles a moon-trip adventure motivated by individualism.

Of course, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) are included, as is the infamous Venus-voyage Planet of Storms (1961), which, bought by Roger Corman, was re-edited and augmented twice, by newbies Curtis Harrington and Peter Bogdanovich. The rarer freak is The Amphibian Man (1961), a dizzy morph from a Creature From the Black Lagoon template to a forecast of Edward Scissorhands, all shot in rich tropical greens (seemingly in Cuba, but possibly in a well-faked Crimea) and fueled by mad-scientist ideas of a class-free "underwater republic." Dreams of alternate societies also plague To the Stars by Hard Ways (1981), as emotionally edgy scientists attempt to figure out the nature and origin of a serene "40%" humanoid woman (the otherworldly Yelena Metyolkina) rescued from a derelict spacecraft; we'll see the 2001 re-edited "new version," which is a polished 20 minutes shorter than the original.

Details

From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema
Walter Reade, August 11 through 24

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Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch(2004) is a knee-jerk inclusion, too, but thank goodness that growling crowd-pleaser is followed by Alexei Fedorchenko's First on the Moon (2005), a recent New Directors/New Films hit that posits, in wistful mock-doc fashion, the secret Soviet lunar landing of 1938, complete with heroic cosmonaut and an archival love of retro-futurism.

 
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