Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Cosmic Voyage ★★★★☆

Cos­mic Voy­age was screened at the BFI, Lon­don as part of their KOS­MOS sea­son, the sec­ond instal­ment of their Russ­ian cin­ema sea­son KINO.

Kino, The BFI’s Soviet sci­ence fic­tion sea­son is well under­way. A cel­e­bra­tion of com­mu­nist film­mak­ing and Russ­ian film pio­neers, the event has so far been an intox­i­cat­ing insight into the power of cin­ema as a form of pro­pa­ganda, but also, more impor­tantly, as an immer­sive and excit­ing method of escapism.

The screen­ing of Cos­mic Voy­age was pre­ceded by two related fea­tures. First a silent movie from the Russ­ian empire first released in 1912, Voy­age To The Moon, com­plete with live piano accom­pa­ni­ment which amazed the audi­ence with its whim­si­cal por­trayal of space travel. Next up was a delight­ful ‘60s doc­u­men­tary offer­ing a infec­tiously hilar­i­ous and dated view of how the space race would result in legions of Soviet fam­i­lies liv­ing in har­mony on the moon, wav­ing back at their impe­r­ial ene­mies whilst they pros­pered in this des­o­late world. Both per­fectly set up the evening’s main event – Cos­mic Voy­age

Released shortly after the spectacularly popular Aelita: Queen Of Mars in 1924, Cosmic Voyage’s plot is a simple tale of professional rivalry set against a science based backdrop, primarily intended to showcase the engineering and astrological advancements of the Soviet Union.

The year is 1946 (only ten years in the future – little would the audience have known about how different things would be – at that time) and the Tsiolkovsky Centre for Space Exploration is prepared for this fantastic journey into the unknown. A strikingly large ramp sprouts from the building, supported by an endless wall of scaffolding, spreading miles into the horizon, like a rollercoaster stretching out far past the reach of mankind. Yet, as an impressive feat of engineering, it’s nothing compared to the rocket ships housed in the station’s hanger – large towering ships of iron and steel which proudly fill this expansive space.

The imminent excursion is plagued by uncertainty. Sensibly Karin led an effort to test the effects of space travel by sending up a rabbit, but when it returned with an exploded heart, due to a cardiac rupture, concerns were obviously raised. However, Pavel Sedikh raised a compelling counter argument that he “is not a rabbit” and insisted the program proceed as planned. Yet a brilliant mind like his was deemed to valuable to risk, so Air Army captain Viktor Orlov is instead promoted to the mission, a decision which angers Sedikh. To prevent further problems, the launch is moved forward to catch the old scientist off guard and Orlov begins his rigorous preparations.

Victor’s younger brother, Andryusha, is a keen admirer of Sedikh’s work and believes this plan to out manoeuvre the aging professor is devious and underhand. He sneaks out to inform Sedikh of this conspiracy, believing that, as he built and designed these rockets, he should be made aware of such treacherous behaviour. A plan is conceived, and despite some unforeseen circumstances, the two of them end up onboard this towering rocket and begin their ascent to the moon. After a mildly unsuccessful landing, an epic quest unfolds to announce to the world below the extraordinary feat they have accomplished…

Cosmic Voyage is perhaps one of the most enjoyable film’s to emerge from the silent era. Successfully merging the childlike amazement of fantasy adventures with a serious scientific approach, Cosmic Voyage is an incredibly creditable film which gloriously realises the hopes and dreams of the Soviet space programme. A socialist-realist melodrama that manages to capture the imaginations of young and old, rich and poor, and everyone else prepared to marvel in its sumptuously presented, imaginative journey into the then unknown

Considering the era in which Cosmic Voyage was created (first theatrically released in 1935), the technical standard is impressively high quality. It’s hard to imagine a time when the world’s population had not been treated to the site of Neil Armstrong taking mankind’s first step onto the moon, so for the lunar sets to capture the desolate scenery so well, whilst still inspiring a delightful sense of excitement, has to be commended. However, the film’s most astonishing achievement is the set design of the Tsiolkvsky’s station. Using miniature models to visually express the grandness of the space craft’s, and the magnitude of the feat at hand, it still looks as impressive now as it must have over eighty years ago. From the scientific accuracies of their design to the seamless transition between their presence on screen and the real life sets the actors perform on, you honestly believe that these two artificial worlds are one and the same – a feat that isn’t always accomplished in even today’s CGI laden movies.

Unfortunately, there are moments when this amazement evoked by the production values is dashed – and the sudden realisation that what you’re viewing was produced decades before the use of personal computers, let alone green screen technology. The film’s stop motion, used to present the weightlessness of the moon’s surface, is noticeably dated. This is partly down to the success of the film’s previous effects, but even compared to the animation of the time, it feels shoddy and poorly conceived, and whilst elements like these can sometimes appear as charming features to a constantly aging relic of film, here it just feels like a misguided step that ruins the hard work preceding it.

This speculative medium is renowned for being used by the Soviet Union to promote political agendas. Cosmic Voyage was commissioned by the Communist Youth League to inspire the younger generations with a glimpse of the adventures they could well be having in the not too distant future. Yet whilst the film may have all the trappings of a government issued recruitment video for young scientific minds, the Communist Party’s arbiters of culture were less than impressed, deeming much of the film as needlessly frivolous and contrary to the dictates of Socialist Realism – resulting in the film being pulled from theatres. With hindsight, and an overwhelming appreciation of the visual splendour of Cosmic Voyage, it’s clear that this adventurous Kino classic is more than just style and spectacle but instead a glorious insight into the promising future many Soviets believed lay ahead, despite the country’s numerous failings. It could be argued, however, that the rebellious nature of the arrogant scientist and his young companion makes Cosmic Voyage a mildly revolutionary film, with these two ambitious but repressed men fighting against the conformists who aim to hold them back from their goal.

You couldn’t imagine a better introduction to the early years of Soviet science fiction than Cosmic Voyage. Combining both visual spectacle and a strong communist message about the alleged great red power of the East, this silent movie needs few words to express its historical importance or its marvellous spirit of adventure.

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