ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 10/10/10
You know what? I’m actually beginning to dig this feature. I mean, I always liked the concept of course - an homage to the crappy Saturday morning creature features of yesteryear - but I think I got off to a bad start with movies like “Abraxas,” and admittedly incoherent snore-fests like “First Spaceship on Venus” tend to kind of wear me down, but if we peel away the layers of deep hurting (As Joel & the ‘bots might say), then we find that I’m stumbling across some films that I’ve never seen, nor even heard of before, and that’s re-awakening my ignorant adolescent glee. Today’s movie is once such example.
PLAY BY PLAY
It is the year 2020, and the moon has been colonized. The first expedition to Venus is underway - a tiny fleet of three ships - but then as they near their goal, one of ‘em is destroyed by a meteor collision. The other two ships are instructed to remain in orbit about Venus until another ship can be launched from earth and join them, but ultimately the crew of one of the remaining vessels has a semi-mutiny and sort of politely disregards orders and goes in for landing while the other ship, and a sort of command module with only a chick aboard, remain in orbit.
The lander cracks up on landing, of course, and they loose contact with it, so after conferring with the moobase back home, the remaining ship decides to land and rescue the idiots in the other ship. They leave the chick - Faith Doumergue (Best known as “Faith” from “This Island Earth,” though she’s instantly recognizable from a zillion 60s TV shows) - in orbit to maintain communications and they, themselves land.
Things are a bit confusing here - Faith stays in orbit, talking to Basil Rathbone on the moon - but it’s not entirely clear why the second ship to land didn’t leave a command module in orbit, or if Faith has been on a separate ship all along, which, if it’s the case, makes no sense as we’re told there were only three ships, and one of ‘em got all blowed up. Fortunately, as Faith is mostly only there to add color commentary to the football game, we can safely ignore her.
Anyway, the second ship lands without incident, and they hear a strange noise which one of them things sounds like a woman’s voice, but which really sounds like a Black Stabbath CD ( http://www.myspace.com/blackstabbath ) They quickly break out their fairly bitchin’ ride - a sleek, cool-looking bubble-topped pressurized hovercraft! This is a really cool effect - it’s not a *real* hovercraft, mind you, and it’s…well, save that for the observations. Anyway, one of the doofus astronauts immediately pulls a Penny Robinson and gets himself eaten by a plant, but, as with Homer Simpson, it’s just a freakin’ plant, and the others are able to escape without incident. After that, they make their way to a body of water, and are attacked by men wearing Godzilla costumes. Then they see a dinosaur and get some blood samples. Then they cross a bay or ocean or viaduct or lake or something, and get attacked by a large pterodactyl puppet, which causes them to sink. Fortunately, they’re wearing space suits, so being under water really isn’t all that much more inconvenient than being on the surface. They lug their car along under water, and find what’s pretty clearly an idol made by intelligent (Albeit pagan) hands, and one of the astronauts discovers a large rock that he’s fond of for some reason, so he carries it along with him.
Surfacing on the other side of the lake or whatever, they build a campfire and sit around it that night, despite the fact that they’re in space suits and don’t need it. They set out again in their car.
Meanwhile, the idiot castaways from the first ship have a big, impressive, fake-looking robot. They get caught in the rain, which, for some not terribly coherent reason, is really bad for them, but the robot finds ‘em a cave to hang out in. Communications are re-established with the rescue team, and the robot (Named “John”) pumps the two nimrods full of medicine, and they get better. Rather than try to get rescued, they decide to go view an exploding volcano and get lava samples, but, of course the lava flow cuts ‘em off, so they climb on the robot and have him walk *Through* the lava (Why the hell weren’t they just riding the damn robot all along?). Eventually, the robot gets pissy (Oh, that’s why), and says it’s going to throw them off to save its own life. Then the dudes on the hovercraft fly over and save them.
Meanwhile, in orbit, Faith can’t contact the ground or Basil Rathbone, so she decides to land, unless she hears from them in an hour.
We get a lengthy scene on the beach where the guys discuss the possibilities of Venusians life (Hello, guys, dinosaurs! Life all around you!) and whether or not sentients evolved here (Hello, guys, pterodactyl idol!), and whether or not these hypothetical Venusians survived or are extinct, and one of them repeatedly gets bogged down on what their chicks look like and (unstated, but implicit) whether or not they’d be doable. This culminates in a surprisingly genuinely funny sight gag. There’s also a montage of them doing science stuff, taking samples, etc.
Getting back to their ship, they get a message from Faith saying she’s decided to land, which, for some reason, causes them to get depressed and have to lighten the ship, so we get a recreation of the “Lighten the ship” montage from Destination: Moon. Then, faster than you can say “No, the pink pages are the newest revision to the script, we’re not doing the subplot from the blue pages anymore,” Faith turns up saying she decided not to land because Basil Rathbone - who can’t be bored to phone in any more scenes - told her not to. Meanwhile the guy with the rock breaks the rock and discovers a doll face inside it, and realizes the Venusians really did look mostly like us. They launch without incident, and a Venusian woman - seen only in the reflection in a pond near the launch site - watches them leave.
This movie is obviously a cobbled-together bastardized version of “Planeta Bur,” a Soviet science fiction film about which I know little apart from it being released in 1962. Roger Corman’s people got ahold of it, and chopped it up, filming some new scenes for the American audience. These are easy to spot, as there’s a very obvious difference in film quality, lighting, cinematography, and even grain between the Soviet and American scenes. Also, the “American” scenes are clearly not dubbed while the Soviet ones are (Though they do a better-than-average job of matching voices to mouth movements in this one). Also, most obviously, Faith and Basil never interact with anyone personally, just over the phone. Basil clearly did all his scenes in one day, and I doubt Faith’s took much longer.
A weird thing is that by any standards, this is a short film. The Sovietski version is 78 minutes long, and despite having added scenes shoehorned clumsily in for American audiences, the US version is four minuts *shorter* than the original. What the heck did they chop out?
I’m not the kind of guy to bitch and moan over people taking liberties with foreign entertainment. I mean, obviously not - I still like Robotech, after all - yeah, I’m sure the original version was better, but I’m also sure I wouldn’t get to see the original version unless Sandy Frank or Harmony Gold one of Roger Corman’s goons took a dump all over it first, and even if I *did,* it’s not like I can speak Japanese or Russian. So, yeah, it’s not optimal, but it *is* acceptable. If you can put aside your concerns about artistic integrity (Which I have no problem with, because I’m American), if you’re not the kind of guy who gets your ideals in a twist over MST3k, then you’ll find there’s a jim-dandy little adventure flick inside this film which mostly survives the Frankenstein treatment it’s been given.
Firstly, Venus actually feels kind of alien - the carnivorous plant is actually really cool, the underwater scenes are obviously fake, but still very visually interesting, and the set decoration - freakishly huge plants, strange bits of growth, weird noises - are well done. The space suits - while a bit hokey - are never dispensed with, and when was the last time you saw an SF film where people actually wore their suits for the whole damn film like Astronauts really would? The locations they use - no idea where they are - are clearly not Zabriski point, California, or planet cascadia. For all I know, these locations might have been as groaningly familiar to Soviet SF fans as Vancouver is to us, but, dammit, they look new and strange to me, and that’s always a plus.
There’s some moderately clever stuff in here, too - the Robot actually has one or two useful purposes, (My favorite: a winch!) and the bit where they’re trudging along under water is very clever, something I haven’t seen before, and something I likely wouldn’t have thought of.
The hovercar is cool! It’s presumably suspended on piano wire or something, but it’s very, very neat the way it zips along legitimately a few feet above the ground or water or whatever, and it makes a degree of sense as an ATV if you don’t know what kind of terrain you’ll be crossing. Also, it looks swanky in a 1950 Analog cover kinda’ way. And it’s pressurized! The inside of the spacecraft look cool/believable, and there’s some fairly impressive FX scenes in the very beginning of the film. This isn’t a great, classic film, I don’t think it was intended as anything more than a mildly diverting adventure yarn, but the production values are great, and it’s worlds better that “First Spaceship on Venus,” which was made more-or-less concurrently with it. If I was a little soviet kid in the early 60s, I would have taken this movie as quite a treat. Even the Cormanized version doesn’t completely screw things up, though it does presumably dumb it down quite a bit.
Regular readers of this column may wonder why Venus was getting all the love from these commie flicks back in the day. This might seem even more confusing if you’re a big fan of NASA, in which case you’re likely unaware the planet even exists. (“Talk about a planet or moon that isn’t Mars? Madness! Why would anyone do such a thing?”) The reason is that Venus is similar in size, gravity, and composition to earth, and it’s consistently much, much closer. There are more launch windows to get to Venus than Mars, and it takes less travel time. Venus was the obvious next step after the moon.
Alas, in 1967, the Soviet probe Venera IV gave humanity its first look under the clouds, and a million dreams were crushed: the planet was as close to hell as it was possible to imagine in a physical universe - no water, caustic acidic atmosphere, and temperatures so high that lead is a liquid. So now we’re stuck with dreams of crappy, boring, useless old Mars, dammit. It is, however, kind of quaint and fascinating to realize that only 40 years ago, we had no idea what a planet so close to us was like, and that nearly everything we know about it, we’ve learned in the span of just one human lifetime.