This is the first review I’m doing for the B-Movie Webmasters ongoing Roundtable reviews. Every month, the webmasters get together, choose a theme and then review a movie based on that theme. Last month was the B-Movie Beach Party and featured a lot of beach/water themed movies. Shadow did Humanoids From The Deep, Lost Highway did Deepstar 6 and so on. I really like the community that had cropped up around b-movies and the hub of it all seems to be Andrew’s totally sweet Bad Movies Dot Org. Naturally, being a B-Movie webmaster, I wanted in on this steez. The theme for September is The Blob Family Picnic. Obviously, the reviews have to be of movies that have some kind of blob monster involved. By the time I got into the loop, all the obvious choices had been taken. The Blob old and new were claimed first, The Stuff was taken and with such a narrow theme, I was at a loss. A loss, that is, until I did a little research on the available titles. I was leaning toward the Bava picture, Caltiki, until I read a little bit about First Spaceship On Venus. How could I possibly pass this up? Produced in 1960 from the other side of the Iron Curtain in East Germany, First Spaceship, known in Europe as Der Schweigende Stern (The Silent Star) looked like any space monster movie that you might have seen produced in the 50’s/early 60’s here in the states, but it has a distinct socialist tone throughout. It’s a schlocky sci-fi movie through the rose colored glasses of Eastern Bloc utopists! I must be dreaming! How did I not hear about this sooner?
In the then future of 1970, an alien artifact is uncovered in the Soviet Union that is unlike anything here on earth. Deep analysis of this object reveals that it is a severely damaged piece of equipment containing some recorded voices from an alien race. Earth’s greatest communist scientists determine that it is one of the only remains from the Tunguska meteor crash in Siberia from 1908 and that it originates on Venus. This being mankind’s first encounter with an alien race, they assemble a crack multinational team of scientists, biologists and linguists and prepare for their journey to Venus in a rocket originally intended for Mars.
Right off the bat, this movie turns the sci-fi genre on its head. Typical American productions of this time were McCarthy fuelled paranoia fantasies where an alien species comes to Earth with the express intent of wiping us out. There was never any diplomacy, no intention of delivering advanced technology just death by death ray. Flying saucers descended to the earth and starting frying anything that moved. In the middle of the cold war, this was blunt symbolism of the perceived threat of communism coming to the states and detroying everything we have come to embrace as Americans. It was crazy, but in the wake of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, it should come as no surprise that frightened Americans found a safe, thrill-ride scare by keeping real life fears at arm’s length but firmly in mind. First Spaceship on Venus will ultimately turn the Venusian race into a aggressive race of aliens, but for the moment, they’re a thrilling prospect of off-planet socialism. Rather than gather together a highly trained military group to go out into space, the socialist take on space exploration is purely of peace.
The crew assemble to take to space in a rocket named the Cosmokrator along with a small, roving robot named Omega. However, en route to Venus, the crew of the ship fully translate the alien language on the artifact and are shocked when they find out that the voice they hear is reporting back to the home planet how easily Earth’s inhabitants will be destroyed. Fear sets in and debates begin. Should they go home? Should they warn Earth? Cooler heads prevail and the crew realizes that they must go on. If the aliens are aggressors then this will be their chance to make peace between the two worlds.
It’s absolutely alarming, given the period that Silent Star was produced in that we, as humans, would be the first to make peace while the alien race deploys all of its weapons to meet us, you know, just in case. Usually, the scenario is the other way around.
I’ve seen a few socialist sci-fi flicks in the past, like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and the first thing I always notice is that obvious budgetary limitations of these socialist productions coupled with the cultural requirements to sing the praises of communism leave the movies looking sparse. You don’t have to spend a lot on special effects if you’re making a sci-fi movie, take a look at the recent time travel mind-bender, Primer, for example, but this is a space travel movie and one of the most disarming things about it is the lavish production. It’s an obviously cheesy looking movie in places but for the most part, the reach of the sets and models are quite ambitious and meet their goals. The cast integrate seamlesly into the launch pad set and alien landscapes. It’s quite moving even when the Japanese doctor is pounding you over the head with her message about Hiroshima and the modern development of atomic weapons. At this point, the movie’s true message becomes clear. Doomsday weapons are evil and they illustrate this with the crew’s visit to Venus.
Upon reaching Venus, the crew sends one man down in a small craft to recon the surface. As soon as he’s gone, communications between his craft and the Cosmokrator are broken. Why, this could only happen if an atomic bomb had been detonated! Upon landing, the crew discovers that no one lives on Venus anymore. Whatever had been there is long dead and the only thing left is the wreckage that, at first, looks like forests of glass but turns out to be a giant weapon. The crew spends much time exploring the planet’s surface but finds nothing but leftover technology of a species that spent so much time and energy developing the means to end life on entire planets.
As the crew lands, the story takes on a tone that is less The Day The Earth Stood Still and more Rendezvous With Rama as the moral of the story begins to take form. If this arms race continues, the only thing that will be left on earth are the weapons. Get it? They explore the surface more and more, finding nothing but the remnants of a dead planet until they come to an underground base where a landslide wakes up the only active weapon left and the one thing that qualifies this movie in the Blob Family Picnic. It turns out that the Venusians developed a technology that turned matter to energy and energy to matter in order to fill the weapon’s (which sounds like the function of the ringworld in Halo) great need for power in order to project a death ray across the vastness of space. Up from bubbling pits come a thick, viscous substance that seems to chase the explorers up an alien spiral platform until they are trapped. A quick zap from a ray gun sends the blob recoiling but it has now affected the planet’s gravity since the weapon relied on the gravitational pull of the planet and the position of Venus in relation to Earth. It all gets very convoluted here.
The blob isn’t so much a sentient creature and it’s not clear why it’s attacking the crew. I’m not even certain if it makes an appearance in the Stanislaw Lem story, The Astronauts, which the movie is based off of. It’s cool looking, nonetheless. Pitch black and thick with red stripes running through it. It chases the crew upwards and looks natural doing so. However, it’s appearance is brief, the scene is mildly tense and the improvised escape is ridiculous, but it sets the tone for the rest of the picture since the effect of the ray gun on the blob shifts the gravity of the planet, locking the Cosmokrator down. A race begins to reverse gravity and get the ship back into space and this is where the story breaks down into ham fisted opportunities to paint its socialist heroes as sacrificing for the greater good. A promising movie collapses under the funk of its own strut.
By this point in history, the space race was well under way and the political rivalries of the world weren’t so much nation to nation as they were ideal to ideal. On one side, capitalist democracy and on the other, utopian communists. The communists managed to beat the capitalists into space with Sputnik and by 1960, they were way ahead of the curve in terms of space program development. They must have been elated! This was great propaganda for their cause. Everyone working together for the greater good vesus their opinion of an every man for themselves condition in democracy. Communist imaginations were soaring at this point and they were most likely thinking of deeper, manned spaced exploration. With such a lead over the United States, the communists made this movie to solidify their position that they were going to win because they were that much stronger. The movie takes every opportunity to shit on the United States. Hiroshima is brought up more than anything else in this movie and the American bombing of Japan is used constantly as a literal weapon against us and ham handed allegory for the fate of Venus. Though, I’m sure it was a secret project until detonation, in 1960, the Soviet Union was well into development on the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon detonated up to that point, scaled back to 50 megatons from the original projected 100. So, you know… There’s nothing like hypocracy but this is the nature of propaganda. Also, if they’re not beating you over the head enough with indictments against American aggression, their depiction of Americans is less than flattering causing their only scientist with the dare to dream to defect to communist Germany in order to be a part of a monumental space mission barred in the United States by bureaucratic red tape. But I digress.
Storywise, Silent Star is actually quite engaging. Imaginative, elaborate sets and a great ship design elevate this movie just a little bit beyond it’s strictly schlocky counterparts. Exploration of Venus and the puzzle that it creates makes for a very good sci-fi mystery, yet by the third act the movie slips into melodramatic heroics and loses all of its punch. As many crappy sci-fi movies do, particularly of this era, they begin pulling shit out of thin air and throwing around lots of science speak but leading up to this point, this is pure science fiction without the action movie trappings that weigh down many movies. Fans of written sci-fi by Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke would be doing themselves a favor by seeing this movie.
I’ve never seen the Mystery Science Theater episode of this, but the differences between this movie and the slashed American release which goes under the name First Spaceship on Venus are giant. Communist themes are cut and the Russian captain of the ship is demoted while the American crew member is recut to look as though he is in charge. On one hand, The Silent Star is a legitimate science fiction movie with ambition and vision, albeit contaminated by it’s political philosophy while First Spaceship On Venus is said to be a jumbled mess that couldn’t be turned into a movie more flattering to the American role in the space race.
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