Whether or not you’re a retro-future fetishist like myself, you’ve got to admit that the farther away cinema was from the actual nuts and bolts of space travel, the better it made it look. Despite some obvious nods to the scientific realism of Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond, the 1935 Soviet silent Kosmicheskiy Reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella (The Space Voyage: A Fantastic Story) seems to model its idea of space exploration on the comparatively more prosaic earthly pursuit of travel by ocean liner, with astronauts packing heavy suitcases for their trip and boarding massive, streamlined “space planes” via gangplanks while wearing their Sunday best. This is a future I want.
Kosmicheskiy Reys was originally conceived by director Vasili Zhuraviyov in 1924, but only saw production in the early 1930s due to the urging of the Communist Union of Youth, who wanted a film to inspire interest in space travel on the part of Soviet youngsters. Despite this chronology, I have to wonder if some filming had not been completed on Kosmicheskiy Reys previous to that time, as, while a few silent films were still being released in the U.S.S.R. in 1935, the lack of soundtrack combined with the under-cranked look of much of the film makes it seem pretty anachronistic, sophisticated effects notwithstanding.
The film centers around the efforts of Sedych (Sergie Komarov), a grandfatherly scientist at the U.S.S.R.’s Institute of Interplanetary Communication who has decided that it would be a good idea to use one of the giant spaceships they have lying around to go to the moon, thus opening “the way to space”. For this journey he recruits the handsome young post grad Victor (Nikolai Feoktistov), not knowing that Victor has been recruited in turn by the Institute’s director, Professor Karin (Vasili Kovrigin), to put a stop to Sedych’s plan -- the stated reason being that Sedych is too old to withstand the as of yet untested rigors of space travel. Karin would instead prefer to continue launching experimental probes manned by hapless bunnies and kitty cats until he can be assured that such a mission would be safe for humans. Sedych, with all the impatient candor of a man whose mortal horizon is clearly in view, says that he thinks this is “bullshit” and that Karin is a “pussy” (admittedly I was lip reading Russian there, so those may not have been his exact words, but that’s the gist).
Fortunately, Victor’s teenage brother Andriusha (Vassili Gaponenko) is made from all the good, progressive Soviet stock that was so obviously in short supply when his turncoat brother was forged, and outs Victor to Sedych. Come the day of the launch, the kid then arrives at the site with a troop of his fellow scouts (I’m guessing these are Young Pioneers, rather than Communist Union of Youth scouts, due to their young ages) who physically prevent both Karin and Victor from interfering. With a cry of “long live youth”, Sedych then boards the ship to the delighted cheers of the children, though not before Andriusha can sneak aboard with him. Sedych’s assistant Marina (K. Moskalenko) is also along for the mission, meaning that, in this film, the first humans on the moon will be an old man, a woman, and a little kid. Whine as much as you want about this being propaganda, but that’s still cool as shit.
As indicated above, Kosmicheskiy Reys’ special effects sequences are ambitious and, for their time, impressively executed. Quite understandably, Zhuravlyov spends a lot of time lingering on them, and, for the most part, they stand up to the scrutiny. It’s not so much that they fool the eye, but that they so effectively contribute to the film’s overall sense of grandeur. The miniature work powerfully communicates the mammoth scale of the space ship, and the scenes of the astronauts giddily flying from one end of the craft’s interior to the other, despite a visible wire here and there, depict the experience of weightlessness with an infectious sense of euphoria. Finally, those scenes of the crew traversing the moon’s surface –- which involve a lot of buoyant leaping across crevasses and up and down peaks -- are realized by way of some really delightful stop motion animation work. Not that theose scenes look in any way “real”, mind you, but they nonetheless add a welcome playfulness to a film that might otherwise be weighted down by its solemn sense of import. (Though, according to Wikipedia, those animated sequences, and their failure to conform to the tenets of “socialist realism”, were cited by Soviet censors as the reason they removed Kosmicheskiy Reys from circulation soon after its release. Oh, well.)
Even with all of its pomp and bold stroke revolutionary allegory, it’s hard not to get caught up in Komicheskiy Reys’ enthusiasm for the human project of space exploration -- especially, I think, for someone like me who has childhood memories of the excitement that surrounded the original moon landing and the missions leading up to it. In the end, after a brief episode of peril on the moon’s surface, the triumphant cosmonauts return to a spontaneous parade and the adulation of an adoring public. Even the haters who initially stood in their way are now all smiles. Wesley… er, I mean Andriusha in particular ends up being the hero of the day, cementing this as a movie that I would have absolutely loved to death when I was a little kid.
By the way, Komicheskiy Reys places its action in the far off year of 1946. As we all know, a lot happened between 1935 and 1946 to distract us from the project of manned space travel (except for those Nazis, of course, who apparently sent flying saucers to the moon). But, who knows? Perhaps, had fate not intervened, we might have been shooting off to the cosmos in flying ocean liners during the Truman administration. Probably not, though. And, in any case, it likely wouldn’t have looked nearly as cool as it does in this movie.