Sunday, February 24, 2013

Petlya Oriona, aka Orion's Loop (USSR, 1981)

For all their technocratic zeal, Soviet Bloc sci-fi films seem much more likely than most to deal with the cosmos as psychological space. Be it the sentient planet of Solaris or the interstellar cabin fever of Ikarie XB-1, there’s a recurring message that space gets inside our heads and messes with us -- that it travels into us as much as we travel into it.

Director Vasili Levin’s Petlya Oriona gives us just such a story of humans traveling into the great black armed with science only to quickly lose track of what is and isn’t all in their minds. It all gets a bit trippy, but to insure that the future cosmonauts in the audience remain bolt upright throughout, the producers kick off with filmed testimonials from a range of actual Russian academics and government officials who hold forth about their theories on extraterrestrial life. (The film is further grounded as a work of scientific instruction by having cosmonaut Aleksie Leonov credited as a screenwriter.)

Yet, for all this flaunting of credentials, Petlya Oriona’s pose of sober inquiry swiftly erodes once its story gets underway, as if it was merely a bureaucratic formality necessary to entering the more speculative realm that the rest of the film inhabits. That story concerns the discovery of a space anomaly, dubbed “Orion’s Loop”, that is travelling toward Earth at an ever increasing speed from the far end of the solar system. Crews of the ships that have crossed within its path have, for the most part, gone mad and then perished.

The Soviets, as chance would have it, are the only ones to have built a ship potentially capable of resisting the Loop’s radiation, and so the United Nations beseeches them to launch an expedition. Once mounted, it is determined that said expedition’s crew should be augmented by a crew of android doubles -- although there isn’t really any more compelling reason given for this than the unspoken one that it makes for a cool motif, which it does. (If you were wondering, the androids are distinguished from the human crew members by their black leatherette flight suits.)

Once within range of the Loop, the crew of the ship, The Phaethon, is plagued by visions and spectral visitations. It’s the old “aliens taking form by mining the human subconscious” gag and -- as Petlya Oriona’s universe obviously doesn’t contain Star Trek reruns -- the cosmonauts are in no way prepared for it. One man is visited by his late mother, another by a beautiful woman from a painting, and all, unaware that they aren’t the only ones having these apparent hallucinations, keep mum about it for fear of sounding crazy.

Eventually, the aliens manage to communicate that Orion’s Loop is something created by them to protect the Earth from a deadly space virus, one borne on a “space typhoon” that is rapidly heading its way. In fact, it is necessary for the Earth to pass through the Loop in order for it to be fully shielded. Unfortunately, by this time, the crew has become so distrustful of all they see and hear that they can’t agree on whether or not the aliens are trying to lure them into a trap. Meanwhile, they’ve been ordered by their superiors back on Earth to destroy the Loop once and for all.

As Soviet space operas go, Petlya Oriona is fairly low key, its minimal effects serving only to put its ideas across without an excess of dazzle. This, naturally, puts the movie’s ideas front and center, where, not necessarily being uncharted territory in the realm of sci-fi, they have to depend more upon the sincerity and thoughtfulness of their presentation than anything else to get across. It also helps, however, that the film was informed by the then very real context of space exploration as an active and ongoing project. The questions about the possible nature of extraterrestrial life bandied about in the prologue and in the film itself were not just meant to be idly pondered but were rather thought of as something that we as a species very well might have to reckon with in the near future.

If anything, it is this last idea that lends any kind of spark of excitement to the overarching mood of dry intensity on display in Petlya Oriona (well, that and the sight of a levitating space babushka). While psyching your mind, space seems also to inspire much vague melancholy and staring soulfully out of portholes -- something that this cast is very good at, especially Leonid Bakshtayev, as the expedition leader, and Lyudmila Smorodina, who plays the ship’s doctor and lone female crew member. As for the fate of Orion’s Loop: Suffice it to say that those androids end up coming in mighty handy, especially since, without them, the fate of the Earth would balance on the apparent inability of their flesh and blood counterparts to make a leap of faith.

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