Soviet Sci-Fi Cinema.
Russia’s Soviet era (1917-1991) was a difficult time, especially for artists, who worked under heavy state censorship. Many artists during this time were stifled, fined, imprisoned or even executed for daring to challenge the Soviet status quo through their works. That said, Soviet-era science fiction cinema still managed to produce some truly groundbreaking works. To name just a few, there was “Aelita: Queen of Mars” (1924), a wildly imaginative silent-era space adventure with a heavy-handed pro-Soviet message, as well as the works of existentialist director Andrei Tarkovsky (specifically 1972’s “Solaris” and 1979’s “Stalker”). There were also some intriguing Soviet-bloc East German sci-fi films such as 1960’s “Der Schweigende Stern” (“The Silent Star,” aka “First Spaceship on Venus”) and 1972’s “Eolomea.” Both “Solaris” and “Silent Star” were based on novels by famed Polish author Stanislaw Lem. Most of these landmarks of Soviet sci-fi cinema I would discover much later (via personal curiosity) in my 20s and 30s.
There was also, of course, the subject of this article; director Pavel Klushantsev‘s fanciful 1962 voyage to the planet Venus, “Planeta Bur” (“Planet of Storms”). This Soviet space opus first came onto my personal radar around the age of 7 or 8, via two reedited English-dubbed versions of the film. The first version was titled “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” (1965) and would often appear on local TV stations. The second version was an even more bizarre cut of the film titled, “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” (1967), which featured extensive footage of American B-movie actress Mamie Van Doren (“High School Confidential”) leading a squad of telepathic, pterodactyl-worshipping mermaids (not even making that up!).
I confess that, as a kid, I loved both cheesy recut versions of this movie. And why not? They featured space travel, dinosaurs, mermaids, a heroic robot, and even a hovering car that preceded Luke Skywalker’s famed landspeeder in “Star Wars” by a good decade or more (future “Star Wars” producer Gary Kurtz shares a producer credit on “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet”). I remember playing with my tiny plastic astronaut action figures in my backyard, reenacting scenes from the film. As a little boy, I had NO idea the movie was Russian-made, nor did I care. It was just a lot of fun. It wouldn’t be until my late 30s that I would finally track down a copy of the original Russian-language “Planeta Bur” (via sinistercinema.com) The more somber tone and philosophical dialogue were much more sophisticated than the playful, simple, action-adventure flick I enjoyed as a kid.
The following synopsis is for the original Russian version of “Planeta Bur” (1962), which is fairly close (save for differing names) to to the overall story of “Voyage of the Prehistoric Planet” (1965). The more radical differences made to 1967’s “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” will be explored afterward.
*****SOVIET-ERA SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
“Planeta Bur” (Storm Planet).
The film opens with a disembodied voice of Earth Control calling out (“Govarit Zemlya!”) to three manned spaceships en route to Earth’s neighboring planet, Venus; Vegas, Sirius and Capella. The Capella is instantly destroyed by an errant meteor, leaving the other two vessels to carry on with the mission.
The Sirius is crewed by stalwart commander Ilya Vershinin (Vladimir Yemelyanov), cynical copilot Bobrov (Georgi Zhzhyonov) and eager young crewman Alyosha (Gennady Vernov). The three are shocked and saddened to learn of the loss of their comrades, and immediately contact their surviving sister ship Vega.
The crew of the Vega consists of commander Scherba (Yuri Sarantsev), his second-in-command & implicit love interest Masha (Kyunna Ignatova), as well as their passenger; an ill-tempered western cyberneticist named Kern (Georgiy Teykh), whose sole interest (besides his own well-being) is his latest creation, “Robot John.” Kern’s automaton is a typically clunky, very Soviet-looking riff on Robby the Robot. Despite the loss of the Capella, Kern is too busy doing his zero-g exercises to be bothered with grief. At Scherba’s urgent insistence, Kern activates the robot, which immediately sets about calculating a new landing plan for Venus with a third less crew and resources. The robot coldly deduces that two crews from Sirius and Vega should land, leaving Masha in orbit for later rendezvous. Being “dead and the heaviest”, the Robot calculates that it should remain behind on the planet as so much expelled weight for a lighter liftoff. His maker reluctantly agrees, noting that “mathematics is pitiless.” The shrewd capitalistic Kern has a genuine soft spot for his cacophonous collection of clattering cogs (to paraphrase “Lost in Space”’s Dr. Smith)…
Masha is distressed by the robot’s “rotten” plan, but agrees to do her part, leaving Vegas in Venusian orbit for the eventual rendezvous and return home (more or less the same orbital rendezvous plan that would be used in the American Apollo lunar missions a few years later). Scherba, Kern and Robot John land first, in a smaller glider craft. Via telemetry, we learn that the craft made a crash landing, but a relieved Masha confirms that the crew is safe. The bulky robot has to be reassembled, as it was taken apart and stowed for the descent. Following the glider’s rough landing, the Sirius is next. Vershinin, Bobrov and Alyosha strap themselves in, and we follow them down through the thick clouds of Venus to a safe landing, quite a distance from the crashed Vega’s glider. Despite having to get used to gravity again (Venus has nearly the full gravitational pull of Earth), the three cosmonauts of Sirius are otherwise okay.
Note: the real planet Venus is nowhere near the water-rich ‘prehistoric Earth’ we see in the film, of course. With a carbon-dioxide atmosphere roughly 100 times thicker than Earth’s, the real Venus is an utter hellhole. Temperatures at the surface are roughly 870 degrees F (464 celsius) globally…hotter than the hottest ovens on Earth. Oh, and did I mention that the planet’s thick, smothering clouds are soaked in sulfuric acid? Short-lived Russian “Venera” series probes have landed there, and have even taken photos at the surface before their electronics were completely fried. The only things missing from this hellish place are swarms of murder hornets…
After their successful landing, the crew of the Sirius disembark and get their first look at the craggy, foggy surface. There is a genuine sense of wonder as the men carefully take their first steps on the virgin world. Because Venus’ atmosphere is unbreathable, the cosmonauts keep their bubble helmets on at all times.
As Vershinin and Bobrov discuss contacting the Vega landing party, the curious Alyosha wanders off, and is nearly killed by a monstrous, spider-like plant-creature, which wraps a tentacle around his legs (like the Sarlaac pit in “Return of the Jedi”) and tries to pull the cosmonaut towards its hungry center. Vershinin and Bobrov fire their pistols at the creature, which instantly releases Alyosha and closes it crusty outer petals. They’ve confirmed that Venus does indeed have life, and soon they are haunted by the wailing siren call of a distinctly human-sounding, feminine voice…
Breaking out their ‘air car’ (a hovering landspeeder-like vehicle that would look completely at home in Luke Skywalker’s garage on Tatooine), the crew of the Sirius trek out across the rugged, primitive landscape to rendezvous with the crew from the Vega, who are hundreds of kilometers away.
I must admit that I had a genuine fascination with the movie’s ‘air car’ as a kid, especially with its cool, late-1950s tail fins, clear canopy, gun turret, atomic power and other details. The fact that it floated on air (via carefully hidden wheels beneath the bodywork) whetted my appetite for the eventual appearance of Luke’s more lived-in looking landspeeder in “Star Wars” (1977). Star Wars’ producer Gary Kurtz was also credited in the Americanized “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” version of this film. “Back to the Future Part 2” (1989) would also see ‘hover-cars’ become a reality in its ‘future’ of 2015 (which sadly came and went…sans hover-cars). If there is one technology from the future that can’t come soon enough? It’s the hover-car.
Come on, Tesla…get cracking
Along the way to their rendezvous, the crew stops to observe some other indigenous life of Venus, including a large, docile, brontosaurus-like creature from which Alyosha gets a quick blood sample. Some very impressive forced perspective work puts the actor in the same shot as the miniature dinosaur (impressive special effects by one V. Shelkov). Soviet films often featured impressive production values in their rivalry with the ingenuity of Hollywood studios. The heavy use of real desert and oceanic locations for the film, seamlessly integrated with indoor sets, gives the movie a great deal of scope. Most western science fiction movies of that time were exploitation movies about giant bugs, or creepy space invaders looking for nubile young brides. Soviet science fiction cinema was genuine science fiction, not just B-monster flicks aimed at drive-in theaters. “Planeta Bur” is arguably on a par with MGM’s “Forbidden Planet” (1956) in terms of its sheer production value, if not imagination.
Meanwhile, as the crew from the crashed Vega glider are putting the final pieces of Robot John back together, they are ambushed by pesky, dinosaur like creatures (cruder, less-effective versions of “Jurassic Park”’s velociraptors). Scherba fires his pistol to keep them at bay. The reptilian scavengers retreat.
Trying to make the rendezvous with the Sirius crew as soon as possible, Kern instructs his mechanical strong man to build a bridge across a vast canyon, which the robot does by using its tow cable to pull down a giant Venusian tree. Not content with merely crossing the new bridge, Kern also requests that Robot John play some music by which to march across. The robot picks a swinging, very western-sounding big band tune right out of the 1940s (ironically, the Americanized version of the movie plays a simpler, flute melody instead). In another impressive force-perspective miniature effects shot, they cross the daunting chasm along John’s improvised, yet sturdy new bridge…
Elsewhere on Venus, the Sirius crew also face an obstacle; driving along the shoreline, the air-car can’t find a strip of land by which to cross the sea. The air-car will have to cross the water, pushing its design to the limit. Before crossing the sea, they briefly stop the car to strategize; as they do, they once again hear the feminine siren call, but can’t get a bearing on where it’s coming from. Vershinin teases Alyosha that perhaps the sound comes from some hideous squid creature instead of a beautiful woman, as the younger man imagines. They get back into the vehicle, and begin their long hovering ride across the ocean (take that, Marty McFly…).
The Vega landing party’s streak of bad luck continues, as a rainstorm threatens John’s electronics, and a foreign contaminant in their spacesuits makes Kern and Scherba feel a bit woozy. Robot John receives a communication from Bobrov, who is frantically contacting them from the radio set aboard the air-car. Taking the car’s radio mic, Vershinin orders the robot to break into the first aid kit and administer antibiotics to the stricken cosmonauts. John obeys, and clumsily gives the cosmonauts their pills and water. With that crisis averted, the air-car experiences its own problems, as a large flying pterodactyl attacks the car, mistaking it for sea food. The car’s gun turret comes to play as they fire at the airborne beastie. Worried about attracting more of such creatures (with no more ammunition), Vershinin orders them to flood the car by opening a bottom hatch, sinking the craft below the surface for safety…
Alone aboard the orbiting mothership Vega, Masha sees the air-car disappear from her radar scope and is deeply worried about the fate of her comrades. Torn between obeying Scherba’s orders to remain in orbit and landing the ship in a futile rescue attempt, Masha has visions of Scherba asphyxiating in the toxic atmosphere while she waits helplessly. Once again, the expressive Kyunna Ignatova does a lot with her relatively brief screen time in the film.
On the ocean floor, the three men pull their air-car along and see an unexpected symmetry to the sea bottom. Alyosha wonders if the long-eroded architecture could be the remains of a sunken city, as Vershinin contemplates Earth’s own legends of Atlantis.
Note: Director Pavel Klushantsev does an imaginative job of filming the actors through a foreground-mounted aquarium and having them walk slowly, as if they’re treading water in all directions. It’s a relatively cheap but smart effect that is convincing enough onscreen, especially when combined with quick insert shots of actual gloved hands in water, fighting away fish.
Vershinin finds more evidence to support his theory of possible humanoid life on Venus as he uncovers a ruby-eyed stone statue resembling the pterodactyl encountered earlier. There was, or still is sentient life on Venus…somewhere.
Note: the the 1967 version of the movie, the one with the “Prehistoric Women,” would take this suggestion and run with it; creating a colony of mermaids for whom this undersea city was an ancient ‘holy’ land. The ruby-eyed pterodactyl statue had a counterpart on the beach as well, which was worshipped by the mermaids as their ‘great god’ Ptera. Personally I prefer the more subtle inference of intelligent life in the Russian version, but that’s just me…
Reaching the shoreline with their soaking wet air-car, the tired crew of Sirius lays the vehicle at the beach and takes a break as it dries out. Building a campfire to warm up, the crew trade speculations about the unseen beings who might inhabit the planet Venus. Once again, they hear the distant wailing siren song of an unseen Venusian, stalking them…
As Alyosha toys with a curiously shaped rock he found in the underwater ‘city,’ Vershinin wonders if their helmeted visages might make them appear as halo-wearing ‘gods’ to the Venusians (cue Erich von Daniken). A skeptical Bobrov thinks it’s all a bunch of hooey (not the exact Russian word, of course…). It’s a nice character-building scene, as the three cosmonauts warm themselves and pause for their philosophical exchange. A lot of ground is covered in the movie’s surprisingly brief, but packed 78 minute running time.
Elsewhere on the planet, Scherba, Kern and the robot are collecting samples of rock, lava and ash as they spot a dangerous red glow on the horizon. Once again, they are back in “Oh S#!t” mode, as a river of lava rapidly closes on their position. With the bubbling magma choking off their escape, Kern suggests the two of them hitch a ride atop the shoulders of Robot John, which could easily carry the weight of both men safely across the river of lava… but does it want to?
As the two men ride the sturdy robot’s broad shoulders, it begins receiving radio signals from the Sirius landing party who tell it they’re arriving soon in the air-car. Feeling the extreme heat from the lava engulfing its lower extremities, the robot’s HAL 9000-like self-preservation mechanisms kick in…
The danger to the robot’s existence forces it to ditch the “excess weight” also known as Scherba and Kern, who struggle to hold onto the robot as they desperately try to disconnect its self-protection circuitry. Scherba does a quick lobotomy on the robot, just as it begins playing the boogie-woogie tune played earlier during the bridge crossing. With the two men perched precariously atop the dying automaton, the air-car dashes to the rescue and whisks the two men away. The dying Robot John then sinks helplessly into the lava, as tears flow down the cheek of its creator, Kern.
With the landing parties of the Sirius and Vega reunited at last, the five men take a brief pause en route to their return rocket, where they tease and play pranks on each other, with unexpected jokester Bobrov using seaweed to sneak up on the gullible Alyosha. Bobrov also shows off baby pictures of his triplets, temporarily monikered as “1, 2 and 3” (he and his wife hadn’t decided on names before he left for Venus). It’s in these moments where we get to know the cosmonauts a bit better. There are so many events packed into this episodically-structured movie that with a bit more breathing room, it could easily fill a short season of Netflix’s “Lost In Space” remake.
Finally arriving at the Sirius, the crew sees another distant volcano erupt. Boarding their ship, they contact a grateful Masha and arrange for their orbital rendezvous. Without warning, a rainstorm suddenly floods the area, and the vertically-resting rocket begins to lose its balance. Time is growing short. Forced to lighten excess cargo for an emergency liftoff, the crew is forced to leave behind all of their precious samples.
As Alyosha uses the rock he found on the ocean floor to flip a stubborn switch on a piece of equipment, the ‘rock’ breaks apart, revealing a fine sculpture of a woman’s face! Alyosha has finally found his ‘mystery girl’ and shouts joyfully to the others about his remarkable discovery. With no time left, Alyosha’s shipmates pull him board, kicking the ladder out from underneath him. With her full crew safely aboard, the rocketship Sirius blasts off from Venus just as the ground beneath her gives way.
Near the Sirius’ launch site, we see a pool of water. The rainstorm has suddenly subsided, and in the rippling water we see the reflection of a white-robed woman whose head has the same-shaped headdress as the woman in Alyosha’s sculpture; the source of the mysterious siren call…
Famed B-movie producer Roger Corman (“Not of This Earth” “Death Race 2000” “Battle Beyond the Stars”), in addition to launching the directing careers of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Ron Howard and Peter Fonda, also had a knack for using footage from high-end European films to give his cheaper made B-flicks even greater production value. During the very Cold War 1960s, the wily Corman somehow (?) managed to import a copy of the Soviet space film “Planeta Bur”, which led to its immediate cannibalization into “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” (1965) and “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” (1967). Both recut versions would also incorporate bits of miniature rocket effects footage from 1959’s epic Mars saga “Niebo Zovyot” (“The Sky Calls”). Director Curtis Harrington (1966’s “Queen of Blood”) would take a pseudonymous directorial credit for the 1965 cut (as “John Sebastian”), while actor/producer Peter Bogdanovich (“Last Picture Show” “Paper Moon”) would take credit for both directing and narrating 1967’s mermaid-filled version.
1965’s “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” used sets (and actors) from director Harrington’s “Queen of Blood” (1966) to flesh out the prologue, which saw the crews of “Sirius” and “Vega” confer with “Professor Hartman” (former 1940s Sherlock Holmes’ star Basil Rathbone) on the Lunar 7 moonbase (remember all of those moonbases we were supposed to have by now?). Rathbone’s Hartman character is the same character he plays later in “Queen of Blood” (same set, same costume) save for a name change to Professor Faraday. Whatever his name, Rathbone serves as the voice of mission control for the film.
“Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” rewrites virtually all of “Planeta Bur” screenwriter Alexandr Kazantsev‘s original dialogue, concentrating more on making the new words better synch with the Russian actor’s lip movements than making a great deal of sense. That said, the much dumbed-down dialogue still does a fair job of matching the overall story beats, even if it lacks all of the original film’s philosophical content and depth. That said, when I first saw the film as a kid, the dialogue was wholly unimportant to me. In fact, the characters could’ve been speaking in Esperanto for all I cared. I was far more interested in the film’s robot, the hover-car and the cool dinosaurs. However, as an adult I lament the loss of Kazantsev’s far superior script.
Also excised was the original movie’s music by Iogann Admoni and Aleksandr Chernov. Director Harrington replaced all of it with stock music from other B-movies. All-new sound effects were added to the newly re-dubbed soundtrack as well, including foley effects later heard in the original “Star Trek” (Robot John now makes the same noises as the Enterprise’s bridge computers when he speaks). The original Venusian ‘siren call’ is also changed from a solitary, ghostlike wail to a more resonant chorus effect.
1967’s “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” is the most radical remix of “Planeta Bur”, with the original movie’s suggestion of a Venusian woman’s ‘siren call’ turned into a full-blown subplot featuring a tribe of pterodactyl-worshipping mermaids (complete with seashell-bras and bell-bottom slacks). The mermaids learn of the ‘invading’ male cosmonauts, but never actually interact with the original film’s Russian actors. Director/narrator Bogdanovich also saved considerable dialogue-looping headaches by having his ‘mermaids’ communicate entirely via telepathy…hence, no nagging lip movements to synch up later in post-production. The final scenes in this version of the film sees the mermaids losing faith in their dead pterodactyl god, who failed to stop the invading cosmonauts from ‘intruding’ into their underwater city. We then cut to the mermaids carrying, and later worshipping the lava-charred, powerless remains of “Robot John.” Famed Star Trek original series’ prop maker Wah Chang (“Star Trek” “The Time Machine”) recreated cheaper versions of the Russian-made “Robot John” and the pterodactyl, more or less matching those seen in the original “Planeta Bur.”
The only ‘name’ featured in the cast of “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” is legendary B-movie Hollywood starlet Mamie Van Doren (“High School Confidential” “The Beat Generation” “The Navy vs. the Night Monsters”). Van Doren was a B-movie answer to the late sex kitten Jayne Mansfield (who was tragically killed in a 1967 car accident). The other mermaids in the added scenes were played by anonymous blonde models (some in embarrassingly bad wigs). Van Doren was also mentioned in director Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994), when Uma Thurman mistakenly believes a celebrity impersonator to be Marilyn Monroe, whom John Travolta correctly points out is sweater girl Van Doren.
Masha, Marsha, Marsha!
One of the least necessary changes between “Planeta Bur” and “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” is the removal and replacement of Kyunna Ignatova‘s original “Masha” with older actress Faith Domergue‘s “Marsha Evans.” Why this change is made isn’t entirely clear… I assume (?) it was to add more Western actors to the cast. What is clear is that the younger, attractive Ignatova gives a much more spirited performance than the lifeless, somnambulistic Domergue who (with her beehive hairdo and CB radio receiver) looks downright embarrassed, as she painfully and robotically recites her dialogue.
Ignatova’s Masha is in an implicitly romantic relationship with her comrade Scherba (Yuri Sarantsev), and her teary-eyed performance nicely conveys her sorrow and eventual relief when she finally hears from him on the surface of Venus; we even see her doing a zero-gravity somersault! Another nuance of Ignatova’s Masha is her character’s subtle disdain for her colleague Kern (Georgiy Teykh) who briefly speaks English (“Just a moment”), and is implicitly western, given his evil ‘capitalistic’ impulse to profit off of his amazing new creation “Robot John.” Despite her relatively brief role, Kyunna Ignatova gives an underrated performance, giving the film some emotional counterbalance to the adventures of her colleagues on Venus.
By contrast, Faith Domergue’s (“This Island Earth”) entire performance is a series of clumsy insert shots of her talking into a CB radio receiver to offscreen characters. Domergue’s needless insertion into the film also negates her physically interacting with the original Russian actors, even in the earlier scenes aboard the Vega, when she is supposed to be on the same ship as “Sherman” (the renamed Scherba), Kern and Robot John.
Adding insult to injury, both Ignatova and Domergue were upstaged by Mamie Van Doren and her mermaids in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1967 cut of the movie. Masha and Marsha were both edited out of the 1967 version, with the name “MARSHA” remaining as a (bizarre) acronym code name for Mission Control back on Earth.
From Russia With Love.
For at-home, COVID-19 safe viewing, the various versions of “Planeta Bur” are now public domain and are on YouTube for easy perusal. Presented here are the three edits of the film discussed in this article: The first is Klushantsev’s original 1962 Russian version (with English subtitles), the second is Curtis Harrington’s 1965 cut of the film, and the third is 1967’s radically recut version which is oddly narrated by actor/director Peter Bogdanovich (“Last Picture Show” “Paper Moon”), who voices young astronaut “Andrei” (nee: Alyosha). Enjoy!
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States is over 123,000 deaths with worldwide fatalities are rapidly approach half a million as of this writing. That number only increases daily. So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.