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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sci-fi from Russia

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has come up with a great late-summer series: Russian science fiction and fantasy movies, most seen very rarely if at all in this country up to now. They date from the 1920s right up to 2006. I hope some of the best ones will make the rounds of other art houses and repertory cinemas around the country, or at least to DVD at some point soon.

One of the films, Stalker, by master director Andrei Tarkovsky, is a sort of Waiting for Godot set in a post-apocalyptic (whether by war or ecological disaster) landscape, full of ruined buildings, polluted water, and weedy, sickly woodlands. Tarkovsky was one of the greatest of all filmmakers, but his distinctive style is too slow and too opaque for many viewers. Those of us who love his films find them hypnotic and mind-bending.

Several of the movies are basically Saturday kiddie matinees, and some were big boxoffice smashes in Russia. One, Planet of Storms (1961), was actually bought by Roger Corman, who used footage from it to make not one but two English-dubbed cheapies (with some new footage). In charge of the two American versions were future directors Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich. In their original Russian versions, Planet of Storms and The Amphibian Man are often naïve and silly, but they have the fascination of showing us the pop entertainment of a very different culture. (Hollywood influences are there, of course, but in a bracingly unfamiliar context.)

One of the movies that fits more or less into this pulp-for-kids category is much more interesting than the others. It bears the preposterously badly translated title To the Stars by Hard Ways (perhaps Thorny Path to the Stars would be a slightly better English title; if it were up to me, I would name it after its heroine, Niya, or her home planet, Dessa). Like Stalker, it carries a warning of ecological catastrophe, and this socially conscious theme, along with the space-opera plot, brings to mind Dune and Star Trek at times. But it is very definitely not made by Americans, and it is the distinctively Russian viewpoint that gives the film its interest and charm. Produced in 1981, it’s much less primitive in both its technique and its story than Planet of Storms or The Amphibian Man. The audience the night I saw it was completely captivated. Let’s hope it is show widely enough to give others a chance to enjoy it.

For more info on the series, titled From the Tsars to the Stars:

http://www.filmlinc.com/wrt/onsale/russianfant06.html

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