Among the wave of Soviet Bloc sci-fi films made during the early days of the space race, Mikhail Karzhukov and Otar Koberidze's Mechte Navstrechu stands alongside East Germany's The Silent Star as one of the most visually imaginative. Both films are examples of the impressive level of technical achievement that could be accomplished when the humble space opera, during that era consigned by most filmmaking cultures to the B movie genre ghetto, was treated as an A list property. Of course, it should be said that, when it isn't dazzling our eyes, Mechte Navstrechu is often propagandizing to the point of self parody. On several occasions, patriotic-sounding songs well up on the soundtrack to urge its cosmonaut heroes onward, so stiffly sung that they make the "Trololo" guy sound like Iggy.
Mechte Navstrechu -- along with director/effects man Karshukov's first film, Nebo Zovyot -- was part of a package of Soviet sci-fi films purchased by Roger Corman during the early 60s. Under Corman's aegis, director Curtis Harrington would later use virtually all of its special effects footage, many of its establishing shots, and much of its non-dialogue scenes that didn't feature astronauts with prominent "CCCP" markings on their spacesuits for his 1966 feature Queen of Blood, filling out the remainder with dialogue scenes shot on a Los Angeles sound stage with an American cast that included John Saxon, Basil Rathbone and Dennis Hopper.
Like a significant number of other Communist space epics (DEFA’s The Silent Star, In the Dust of the Stars and the aptly named Signals among them), the original version of Mechte Navstrechu starts with the receipt of a mysterious signal from outer space. As the personnel of a well appointed scientific center puzzle over its meaning, a similar signal, generated by our planet, is received by the residents of the distant planet Centurion. In an impressive model sequence, Centurion then launches a mammoth space probe, manned by a crew of two men and one woman, to investigate. Unfortunately, the craft runs into trouble, making a forced landing on Mars, and an SOS beacon of sorts is sent to Earth containing a filmed document of the crash. In response, a crew of heroic young cosmonauts is dispatched from a base on the Moon to rescue the survivors.
Mechte Navstrechu takes place in a post-Cold-War world of international cooperation, but it is clear that some rivalries still remain. Krylov, head astronomer at the scientific center, has a good natured ongoing argument with “Mr. Laungton”, another scientist there, about whether alien life will prove friendly or hostile once encountered. Laungton insists upon the latter, and, within the utopian framework of the film, it is clear that his are meant to represent the warlike, anti-progressive ideas of the old order, and that his Western sounding name was likely no arbitrary choice on the part of the screenwriters. Nonetheless, this very question lingers tensely in the air as the space travelers grow ever closer to their first close encounter with the mysterious Centurions. This only to make more triumphant the rebuff of Laungton that occurs in the film’s final moments, once the crew, after great sacrifice, has successfully rescued the benevolent female Centurion and returned with her to Earth. “You were wrong, Mr. Laungton!” gleefully barks one of the cosmonauts, addressing what appears to be the entire world over some kind of global public address system.
Despite its optimistic tone, Mechte Navstrechu boasts a look that is, to a great extent, markedly somber and eerie. For all the scientific advancement on display, no one seems to have quite mastered the technology of indoor lighting. Thus the interiors of space ships and pretty much the whole of the Centurions’ planet are forests of murky shadows. This contrasts interestingly with the stereotypical Soviet utopianism of the early Earthbound scenes, in which human crowds are rendered tiny by the massive triumphalist architecture enclosing them. Centurion, for its part, seems to be cloaked in an abysmally deep, perpetual night, making all the more tantalizingly alien all of the mysterious structures and gadgetry we see on display there. Compounding this is the fact that the Centurions are always depicted as mute, moving slowly and silently through their surroundings as if in a somnambulant trance.
In making Queen of Blood, Curtis Harrington stuck surprisingly close to Mechte Navstrechu’s story in scripting his first and second acts. Mechte Navstrechu, however, was a film that made its point very quickly, and as such came in at barely over an hour. Thus, with no more of Mechte Navstrechu left to work with, Harrington took the opportunity to take off from its ending and go in a completely different direction. In his version, the astronauts, in the course of transporting back to Earth the rescued alien woman (Florence Marly, dressed and made up to resemble the character played by T. Pochepa in the original), find that she is not the friendly E.T. advertized, but instead an animalistic monster who hypnotizes the crew members one by one before gorging on their blood. Because of this, Queen of Blood almost feels like a rebuttal to Mechte Navstrechu, as if playing the untrusting and cynical Mr. Laungton to the original’s Dr. Krylov. Could it be that optimism in the face of the unknown was a value that was considered just too commie for American audiences at the time?
Of course, if there is a triumph of capitalism to be found in Queen of Blood, it is in the fact that, thanks to the high caliber of its borrowed design and effects work, it manages to look like a million bucks despite having cost executive producer Corman considerably less. The man knew quality when he saw it, and one doesn’t have to look too hard at Mechte Navstrechu to see that it’s a visual feast of a kind rare within its genre.