Monday, June 20, 2011

To the Stars by Hard Ways (Russia, 1981)

With the exception of art house fare like Tartovsky’s Solaris, Russian science fiction films have a history of being treated with little respect in the U.S., and To the Stars by Hard Ways is no exception. After falling into the ruinous hands of Sandy Frank, it received one of that producer’s typically haphazard dubbing jobs before being released to American television under the title Humanoid Woman, going on from there to the ultimate ignominy of being mocked by puppets on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

In Russia, not surprisingly, it was a somewhat different story. Scripted by renowned Russian sci-fi author Kir Bulichev, the film was both a critical and box office success during its day, and, after the fall of communism, became something of a cult item among the country’s young film enthusiasts. This renewed popularity prompted the successful release of a restored version of the film (the project of Nikolai Viktorov, the son of the film’s original director, Richard Viktorov) in 2001. Given the contrast between its handling Stateside and its reception in its homeland, it’s tempting for a writer like myself to go that one step further and over-praise the film as being some kind of underappreciated masterpiece. But that simply isn’t the case. Still, To the Stars is nonetheless a well made and interesting movie, and certainly one that rewards a viewing minus the hectoring silhouettes of Joel and the bots.

The film begins with the discovery of a mysterious, human-like woman, the sole survivor of some unascertainable catastrophe, aboard a derelict alien spaceship of unknown origin. In order to both study this extraterrestrial and introduce her to our human ways, the somewhat unorthodox decision is made to bring her back to Earth, where she will live at the home of scientist Sergei Lebedev along with Lebedev’s mom and dad and his college age son Stepan (Vadim Ledogorov), who is finishing his preparations to become an astronaut. That the woman, who comes to be known as Niya, ends up being a quick study of the spoken Russian language ultimately serves to shed little light on things, as she is only able to reveal that she remembers nothing prior to her rescue.

What is immediately apparent about Niya, however, is that she is capable of moving at superhuman speed, and that she has both the power of telekinesis and the ability to teleport herself at will. It is further learned, after closer examination, that she is a creature of synthetic origin, and that her brain is designed so that she can be controlled remotely by some unknown third party. The question then, for both Niya and her human hosts, becomes that of for what purpose she was created, and by whom. When delegates from the ecologically ravaged planet Dessa arrive on Earth asking for assistance, Niya thinks she has found the answer.

Suspecting that Dessa is her home planet, Niya stows away aboard a clean-up vessel bound there, not realizing that it is the same ship on which young Stepan will be making his maiden voyage as a space cadet. Once there, she gradually becomes aware of her true purpose, all the while assisting the crew in its attempts to steer the blighted planet away from the brink of irreparable ecological meltdown. Opposition to these efforts comes from the forces of Turanchoks, an industrialist who has turned the increasing toxicity of Dessa’s atmosphere into an opportunity for profit -- he’s made a killing in canned air and gas masks –- and who sees no gain in having the situation remedied.

Alongside Aleksei Bybnikov’s romantic, harpsichord tinged score, attractive cinematography by Aleksandr Rybin, and a few truly imaginative ideas and inspired visuals, I think one of the things that contributes most to To the Stars by Hard Ways being as enjoyable as it is is the agreeable balance it strikes between hard handed allegory and lighthearted space opera. I know that those who are rightfully wary of propagandistic elements within Soviet films might roll their eyes at the movie’s depiction of a craven industrialist capitalizing on the misery of the masses, but, in that, it’s really no more strident or left-leaning than the nihilistic portrayals of corporate greed found in countless Hollywood versions of dystopia produced since the late 60s.

And, unlike a lot of those latter mentioned films, To the Stars –- no doubt motivated by a desire to disprove any obliviousness to Star Wars on its makers’ parts -- also piles on fun, Flash Gordon-y elements like intrepid space cadets, goofy domestic robots, grotesque alien creatures, groovy looking space vehicles, and a climax that involves both a ravaging space blob and a pitched battle on the surface of an alien planet. In well orchestrated combination with the Earthbound parts of its narrative, which are steeped in both melancholy and mystery, this makes for quite a unique stew, not to mention one whose ingredients, in a testament to Viktorov’s prowess as a director, clash a lot less than you really might expect them to.

Perhaps To the Stars by Hard Ways’ greatest asset, though, is the presence within it of Yelena Metyolkina, a model who was then making her acting debut. With her haunted, marmoset-like eyes and startled, cat-like movements, Metyolkina’s Niya is both an oddly compelling heroine and a striking physical presence, combining an unnervingly alien inscrutability with a vulnerability that is all too human.

And once we learn more about Niya’s unique predicament, I’d think it would be difficult for even the most calloused viewer not to feel a little something for her. Though, by the time of her return to Dessa, she has adapted to the ways of her human hosts as best she can, she is still, at heart, just another ET with a longing to go home -- no matter how ravaged and muck encrusted that home might be. Sadly, as the film’s title implies, that the path home is seldom one as straight and true as it might seem is something that Niya has to learn the hard way.


Iguig said...

Hi Mr Stadtman! I have to say that was quite a "world-class" review of the movie, by that I mean something that reads as if the movie is an art house-type movie. I do have to say that the "editing" such movies (I guess this applies to all Soviet movies but I may be wrong) receive when they go Stateside is truly a lamentable one, one that prevents US audiences from seeing the beauty of Soviet cinema. I hope you continue in your reviewing of Soviet/Russian (and of course world) "B-level" cinema.

Being a Filipino, having read your review on several Filipino movies, I like to suggest you try watching our action movies, most especially the movies of Pinoy movie-king FPJ. Most if not all of them contain common elements (more so in the case of FPJ) and some are available in DVD with Eng. subs.

Todd said...

Thanks, Iguig! I actually have an FPJ movie in the stack waiting to be watched and reviewed. Maybe I'll bump it up a few notches.

Iguig said...

Thanks for the reply, Mr Stadtman! Looking forward to your first review of FPJ, the Mitr Chaibancha of the Philippines just as Mitr Chaibancha is the FPJ of Thailand.

There's this book titled "Bakit Baliktad Magbasa ang Pilipino?" (Why Do Filipinos Read Upside-Down?) by Bob Ong, which is a humourous look at Filipino life, in Inangbayan and overseas. There is a section which is a list of the elements of a Filipino action movie, things that appear in most if not all action movies of the Philippines. You may borrow it from your local public lib if it's available. The list is surely funny, and you may even use it as your guide or checklist when you're watching a Filipino action movie. Until next time.

Jay Shatzer said...

Wow this film looks great and your choice of stills are brilliant. Russian Science Fiction is truly beautiful, but damn hard to get ahold of. Now I just have to find a way to check this out for myself. Loved the review.

Unknown said...

Great site / info / photos. One downside: very stingy jpegs! Pixels are not expensive! 800 width minimum works well.