Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tumannost Andromedy, aka The Andromeda Nebula (USSR, 1967)

Tumannost Andromedy delivers outright what many of us would most hope for in a Soviet sci-fi film from the 60s: a kitschy depiction of a future socialist utopia, in this case one with delightful Greco-Roman trappings. However, it seems that the film’s optimism ends with Earth’s atmosphere. Like Mechte Navstrechu and the East German Silent Star before it, Tumannost Andromedy seems to be of the mind that, while human industriousness and cooperation may be capable of achieving heaven on Earth, the rules change once mankind ventures out into the heavens themselves. As secure as one might be encouraged to feel in the care of the benevolent state, it seems there is still plenty of room for anxiety and uncertainty within the black expanses of the cosmos.

Tumannost Andromedy was intended to be the first of a series of films based on Ivan Efremov’s landmark Russian science fiction novel of the same name, a sprawling and largely polemical depiction of a future society in the Soviet mold. It is because of this that the film bears the secondary title Episode 1: Prisoners of the Iron Star, and also features a number of subplots that are curiously left hanging at the film’s end. Apparently the movie didn’t meet with enough popular success to warrant the expense of moving forward with the series, which, while a shame, is also understandable given the obviously high production values on view throughout.

The film tells the story of the Earth spaceship Tantra, which, while on an extended exploratory mission, gets caught in the orbit of a space anomaly referred to as an iron star. After receiving a distress signal from a sister ship on the planet’s surface, the ship’s crew -- not realizing that responding to a distress signal in an Eastern Bloc sci-fi film is the worst thing you could possibly do (see pretty much every Eastern Bloc sci-fi film I’ve ever reviewed) -- decides to make a landing, even though they will critically deplete their fuel by doing so. Once on the surface, they find a number of derelict ships, including an alien flying saucer, and an amorphous creature that is somehow capable of entering their spacesuits and devouring them from within. As the casualties mount, the ship’s captain, Erg Noor (Nikolai Kryukov), determines, in lieu of beating a hasty retreat, to make a stand against the monster, which makes use of the planet’s ample darkness for cover.

Alongside a generous amount of neat space opera trappings, Tumannost Andromedy -- in keeping, I imagine, with its source material -- makes a lot of room for lengthy philosophical discussions on the part of its characters. The society depicted is one that, while having conquered the problem of traveling long distances in space, is still at the cruel mercy of time. The distress beacon sent out by the Tantra, we learn, will take 20-25 years to reach Earth, while, elsewhere, loved ones wait near lifetimes for a traveler’s return. In another scene, members of the film’s Council of Astronavigation watch a dance performance being beamed from a distant planet, musing that those participating would have died long ago during the hundreds of years it’s taken the signal to reach them.

Also examined are the effects of time and distance on the human heart, as we see that, back on Earth, Captain Noor’s wife, Vita (Latvian stage actress Vija Artmane), has embarked on a guilt encumbered affair with fellow council member Dar Veter (Sergei Stolyarov). Meanwhile, on board the Tantra, Noor and his navigator Niza (Tatyana Voloshina) struggle with their own mutual attraction. Given all of these trials, it is not surprising that the Earth scientist Mven Mas (Lado Tskhvariashvilli) has made it his top priority to find a way to “compress time” -- a project that I imagine would have become increasingly central to the story had the Andromeda series continued, but which here becomes just one of those several plot threads that is left maddeningly unresolved at the film’s conclusion.

All of these aforementioned concerns certainly lend a melancholy air to those scenes in Tumannost Andromedy that take place on Earth. But what really strikes you about those scenes is how their sun-dappled and panoramic look contrasts so harshly with those taking place on the iron star. Because, truly, while those characters may be going through some deep existential crises as they stroll glumly along all those picturesque beaches and lush hillsides, the crew of the Tantra is living through a waking nightmare of almost unimaginable proportions. The sense of isolation and creeping dread in those planet bound scenes, augmented by the barrenness and pitch blackness of their Ukrainian locations, distinguish the film as being less a straightforward sci-fi film than a space-bound horror in the tradition of Bava’s Planet of the Vampires.

Director Yevgeni Sherstobitov drives this home especially in a scene where the crew enters the darkened interior of one of the derelict spaceships, only to find its crew reduced to oily, human-shaped shadows on the walls. Also spine chilling are the brief glimpses we get of the film’s monster, which appears as a giant, roiling black cloud barely discernible against the starless black sky. Of course, all of these horrors are contrasted with the bravery of the staunch cosmonauts who face them, but Sherstobitov’s numerous slack-jawed reaction shots of those cosmonauts make clear that they are doing so at no inconsiderable cost to their collective peace of mind.

Given the quality of its production design and miniature effects, it’s a bit surprising that no American film ever saw fit to make borrowed parts of Tumannost Andromedy its own, a la Queen of Blood. I suspect this may simply be due to the fact that it came along at a time when Roger Corman had put that practice behind him. In any case, it’s his loss. Not only do we have the Tantra itself, with all its futuristic appurtenances, but also the giraffe-like land vehicle -- both in miniature and full-sized mockup form -- that the crew tools around in once on the planet’s surface. And then there’s a neat looking remote control robot and a handheld laser cannon that plays a key part in the film’s fiery finale. All of these surface trappings combine with the film’s deft weaving of mood to make Tumannost Andromedy yet another example of Soviet space cinema that puts many of its contemporary counterparts in the West to shame. Sure, some might find it bogged down with ideology, but, that aside, the pleasures it delivers translate so effortlessly across borders that to deny oneself for that reason would be a waste.


Jay Shatzer said...
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Jay Shatzer said...
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Jay Shatzer said...

Nice write-up! I have to hunt this one down because I love me some Soviet Sci-Fi. Thanks for bringing it to my attention and keep up the great work. Love the blog!

Todd said...

Thanks, Jay!