CAPSULE: A professor, a woman, and a Young Pioneer are the first to travel to the moon in a Soviet science fiction film rarely seen in the United States. The story is only mediocre, but some of the visual effects are just stunning. The film seems to be a Soviet response to Fritz Lang's FRAU IM MOND and while it is not as effective, it provides its own rewards. Included at the end of this review is a link to Google so the reader can (probably) stream this film to a computer. Rating: unrated due to language barrier
As a fan of early science fiction films I, of course, have long ago seen France's A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), Germany's FRAU IM MOND (1929), Britain's THINGS TO COME (1936), and the US's DESTINATION MOON (1950), each one of the first major science fiction films from of its country and each involving travel to the moon. Somehow I was only vaguely aware that there was a Soviet film that belongs on that list. That film is known in the West as COSMIC VOYAGE, SPACE VOYAGE, or KOSMICHESKIY REYS: FANTASTICHESKAYA NOVELLA, released in 1935 after three years in production. Ironically, while each of these films was from a major industrialized country, the US was the last to send people to the moon in cinema, and the first to send people to the moon in reality.
While this film was made in the sound era, released the same year as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, it was made as a silent film, probably to save expense. COSMIC VOYAGE is an adaptation of a screenplay by Aleksandr Filimonov and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Tsiolkovsky was a noted rocket engineer and visionary who championed the idea of space travel in the Soviet Union. He consulted on and contributed to the project just as rocket engineer Hermann Oberth worked as an advisor for FRAU IM MOND. I will not give a detailed plot because I have yet to see a version with English-language inter-titles. (Though Sinister Cinema offers one for sale.) I watched with a phonetic knowledge of the Russian alphabet and with a Russian dictionary. However Wikipedia gives the following description of the plot: "In the year 1946, the Soviet space program is undergoing turmoil. Professor Sedikh, who is planning to lead the first manned exploration to the moon, is denounced by his rival Professor Karin as being too old and too mentally unstable for the mission. Professor Sedikh, aided by his assistant Marina and a youth named Andryusha, disregard Prof. Karin's authority and make a successful landing on the moon. Although a few problems occur at the moon, including the discovery of a damaged oxygen tank and Professor Sedikh's becoming trapped under a fallen boulder, the expedition is a success and the cosmonauts return to Moscow." [It was my impression that it was Karin who goes to the moon. It certainly is the older man. But I am hampered by the language barrier.]
COSMIC VOYAGE shows strong influence of FRAU IM MOND, the earlier and generally superior effort. Both films have a boy along, giving the children in the audience a character they could identify with. It both cases the boy is somewhat mischievous to make him more enjoyable. COSMIC VOYAGE is the first film I know of that portrays people floating in zero gravity. FRAU IM MOND acknowledges that that there is no gravity on the space ship, but provided stirrups on the floor for passengers to put their feet in to keep them from floating. COSMIC VOYAGE has the travelers having a good time enjoying floating around the cabin. The filmmakers could not do the effect accurately and instead have the actors swing from wires in arcs like the ends of pendulums. The plot is much simpler than that of FRAU IM MOND, but then the German film runs typically about 162 minutes and COSMIC VOYAGE a mere 65 minutes.
The futuristic visuals of COSMIC VOYAGE are its main attraction. The film shows immense architectural vistas, somewhat like THINGS TO COME would give us a year later. Scenes over the massive launch facility have little model cars moving to help the feel of scale. The launch facility and the interior of the space ships show a lot of steel girders to give a technological feel. The spaceships, and we see two of them, are long cylinders tapered toward the back where the engines are. Three giant fins run almost the entire length of the ship--hardly very useful for space and lunar traveling, but they do look impressive. There are several scenes from floor level of the giant rockets moving down their rails and this is one of the best effects in the film. One scene has a spaceship moving down the track directly at the viewer and does not stop until the nose of the spaceship apparently strikes the lens of the camera. The rocket is launched horizontally from raised rails, not unlike the later V-1 rocket and the ship in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951).
The crew wears what appear to be leather flight suits with matching leather headgear looking a little like early football helmets. One bizarre notion is that to protect the travelers from the acceleration of take off they are submerged in tanks of water for the launch. Generally the effects are created with models that occasionally show their true scale, but are majestic anyway. To show scenes of people jumping long distances in the low lunar gravity stop-motion photography is used. Pressure suits for walking on the moon appear much like deep-sea diving suits with additional hoses that stick out dangerously to the side. For scenes on the moon itself the foreground and background too frequently shift with respect to each other spoiling effects like that of the Earth looming in the lunar sky.
I am not sure if the musical score on the version I saw is original, but it seems to have very little original music. Most of the score is cobbled from Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture and especially from Liszt's Les Preludes. It might be noted that Les Preludes was used extensively as Ming's Imperial March in the old Flash Gordon serials as well as in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN the same year as COSMIC VOYAGE was released.
On one hand this is not a film that is very well executed, but it makes an interesting curio. It is surprising that so many years after its production there is not a version generally available in English. This certainly should be a milestone in the history of the science fiction film. With a version in a language I understood I would probably give COSMIC VOYAGE a rating in the rang of +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10, but will not because I missed too much of the plot.
There may not be a reliable source of the film on the Internet, but if one follows the Google page below (which searches for the title in Russian Cyrillic) and looks for video of about 65 minutes or more, one can see the film with Russian inter-titles. (I am grateful to Bill Higgins who discovered this arcane way of finding watchable versions of the film.)
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper