Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Moscow - Cassiopeia (Russia, 1974)

Sending teenagers on a lifelong journey into space is an idea many parents would endorse, as well as, I’m sure, more than a few teenagers. Judging by Moscow – Cassiopeia and its immediate sequel, Teens in the Universe, it was also an idea that had some purchase in mid-70s Russia, where the (deep breath) Maxim Gorky Central Movie Studio For Children and Youth Films produced them with the presumed goal of turning teens libidinal energies toward the exploration of space and other science-y stuff.

Like virtually every Soviet sci-fi film, Moscow – Cassiopeia begins with the receipt of a mysterious distress signal from somewhere deep in space. This trope is so prevalent that there must be a concrete reason for it. My guess is that the Soviets were eager to present their interests in space as altruistic rather than imperialistic--unlike you know who. I mean, I guess it’s conceivable that the U.S. might spend billions of dollars in order to respond to an anonymous call for help from billions of miles away, but would you want to tell the ghost of Kitty Genovese that? (Google it.)

It is eventually determined that the signal comes from the planet Alpha in the remote star system of Cassiopeia. This leads into a conference at which teenage scientist Sereda (Misha Yershov) presents his plan to build a rocket with engines that work on the principle of “annihilation” (which is somehow supposed to be less polluting than a normal engine.) This rocket could travel the distance necessary to investigate the signal, although such a trip would take 27 years. For this reason, Sereda suggests a teenaged crew be selected for the mission. This way they will be young enough upon their arrival not to be soaked in their own incontinence.

If this was a Japanese sci-fi movie, Sereda would be ten and clothed in disturbingly snug micro-shorts, and the adult authorities would nonetheless endorse his plan without question—as the Soviet authorities do the plan of the less alluringly garbed Sereda. Thus is a mission team selected that is comprised of three dashing young boys and three winsome young girls. These all present as ideal Soviet youths by virtue of being perpetually grim faced and task-bound—except when their captive sexual tension results in some jealousy-fueled tussling. This, I think, is supposed to be funny, as are some other ostensible comedic moments in the film that are as impenetrably mysterious as the signal itself. At certain points, everyone starts laughing and whimsical music plays on the soundtrack, and you will just be like “…what?” This includes a lot of the putative antics surrounding Sereda’s attempts to find the author of an anonymous mash note he has received.

Also on board is the accident-prone Lobna, who is played by future TV director Vladimir Basov Ml. in his first film appearance. As a mischievous stowaway, Basov essentially plays the Dr. Smith role in this film, although without being a hysterical gay caricature. It is Lobna's combined inquisitiveness and gracelessness that ends up causing the ship to accidentally go into light speed and reach Alpha well ahead of schedule. This is fortuitous, because there's no novelty in seeing a bunch of forty-somethings farting around on an alien planet set. Unfortunately, we have to wait until the next film, Teens in the Universe, to see the sexier alternative.

Another character I should mention is a mysterious older gentleman, played by Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy, who refers to himself as "I.O.O.", which stands for "Executorial Official of Elucidation." I'm tempted to see that title as a satirical jab at Russian bureaucracy by some upstart screenwriter, but then I might just be projecting. Anyway, this figure provides our introduction to the film, speaking to us directly as he informs us that the story we are about to see is true, although it took place in the future--a statement seemingly designed to explode the mind of a teenage pothead. From there, he pops up throughout the narrative and at times seems to be controlling events through some unknown means (communism, perhaps?), something that the sequel will hopefully shed some light upon.

And will I watch the sequel to Moscow - Cassiopeia, you may ask? Of course, I will--as will I report upon it to you. I found the film engaging and thoroughly charming. The young cast is appealing, the soundtrack--a mix of bleep-bloop electronic music, Russian folk songs, and swinging 70s soft rock--is awesome, and the 70s sci-fi set design is enough to please any fan of Space: 1999, Logan's Run, or any other entertainment in which future people appear to be living inside a pricey refrigerator. Simply stay tuned to this frequency for my next mysterious transmission.


Adrian Smith said...

This sounds amazing. Russian sci fi is a sub-genre I have yet to explore!

Todd said...

Get on it, man! A review of this film's sequel should be up within the next couple of days.