BOOTLEG FILES 331: “The Space Voyage” (1936 Soviet science-fiction feature).
LAST SEEN: Available for unauthorized downloads at several web sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Virtually unknown outside of vintage science-fiction circles.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A limited edition Russian DVD was twice released, but no U.S. release is planned.
This week’s film came to my attention via the latest edition of Steven Puchalski’s always-wonderful magazine Shock Cinema. It is a Soviet production that was originally known as “Kosmicheskiy reys: Fantasticheskaya novella,” though in English it is better known as “The Space Voyage” (it is also called “Cosmic Voyage” by some sources). But beyond super-expert cinephiles like Puchalski, the film remains an unknown commodity.
How does one account for the obscurity of “The Space Voyage”? I suspect that the problem comes from its soundtrack – or, specifically, the lack thereof. The production was shot in 1935 as a silent movie, which was a very peculiar decision since sound film technology was already in use within the Soviet Union’s motion picture industry. There was still a small market for silent films in the mid-1930s – many classics of the 1910s and 1920s were reissued during that decade with synchronized scores and sound effects – but there was no international market for new silent films. Even Hollywood’s last silent film holdout, Charlie Chaplin, had to incorporate a few sound sequences into his 1936 “Modern Times.”
There is no available documentation to confirm why “The Space Voyage” went forth as a silent film. My speculation would be that it helped to keep down the production costs – this Mosfilm production is rich with clever special effects and elaborate sets, and there may have been a fear that the cost for such a film would balloon if sound was part of the mix.
Filmmaker Vasili Zhuravlov originally wrote an outer space script in 1924, but it was never produced. In 1932, the Communist Union of Youth sought out Zhuravlov for a film that would encourage an interest in space studies by Soviet youth. Zhuravlov, in turn, sought out Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Russia’s aeronautical theorist and rocket science engineer, as well as the author of “Outside of Earth,” a landmark science-fiction novel. The collaboration was fruitful but, sadly, Tsiolkovsky died shortly before “The Space Voyage” was ready for release.
“The Space Voyage” takes place in the far-off year of 1946, where trouble is brewing in the Soviet space program. Prof. Sedikh, a Santa Claus look-alike with a fondness for fast cars, is leading the nation’s efforts to send a man to the moon. His rival, Prof. Karin, tries to disrupt Sedikh’s efforts by insisting that the old man “lost his mind.” Karin points to a failed experiment that sent a rabbit into space – the poor bunny’s heart burst during the expedition, and Karin believes that Sedikh’s plans for space travel is impractical.
Sedikh, however, has other plans. Another test rocket sends a cat to the moon, and Sedikh doesn’t bother waiting for the feline’s landing before he decides it is time for humans to leave the Earth. Accompanied by his pretty blonde assistant Marina, the professor ignores Karin’s harrumphing and prepares his “rocketplane” for take-off. An irrepressible boy named Andryusha, who has inexplicably been wandering around the space center, decides to join Sedikh and Marina on their voyage.
Sedikh’s rocketplane takes off from a massive ramp and zooms quickly into the heavens. The cosmonauts don leather spacesuits and enclose themselves in water-filled cells designed to avoid fatal jolts from the takeoff. Once in space, they dry themselves off and experience weightlessness by floating around their unusually spacious craft. The lunar landing is a bit rough – Sedikh doesn’t get back into the water-filled cell and briefly gets knocked out. However, he is quickly revived and the trio prepares to walk on the moon. (Fortunately, there is a boy-sized spacesuit on board to ensure Andryusha’s participation.)
Despite wearing some fairly odd spacesuits – diving helmets with a series of air tubes and platform boots that would’ve been at home during the heyday of Studio 54 – the cosmonauts explore the moon’s surface. But there is trouble – they land on the dark side of the moon, away from the Earth’s view, and damage to their oxygen tank during the landing leaves them ill-prepared for a return voyage. If that’s not bad enough, Sedikh falls into a crater and gets trapped beneath a lunar boulder.
So how does it all wrap up? Well, there’s no sense in giving away the film’s conclusion, because “The Space Voyage” is a genuine surprise in both a good and bad way. The film, not unlike other classic space voyage movies of the pre-Neil Armstrong era, is a delightful mix of the innovative and the naïve. Some of the special effects are genuinely astonishing for the mid-1930s, particularly the tracking shots around the rocketplane and stop-motion animation that simulates travel across the gravity-free moon.
Yet there are some glitches that are not easy to overlook, particularly the conspicuous wires that float the cosmonauts through their weightless state and the utterly illogical means used to signal the Earth (a technique that forgets all about the lack of gravity on the moon). Considering the amount of care that went into many of the special effects, the sloppiness with these basic bits of trickery is puzzling.
For those who imagine Stalinist-era cinema as being without mirth, “The Space Voyage” has a surprisingly high quotient of humor. Sedikh and Andryusha are comically spunky rebels who routinely thumb their noses at authority – that’s not something you’d expect in a 1936 Soviet movie – while genuinely charming comedy relief comes with Sedikh’s stressed-out wife (she’s fretful that he didn’t pack his warm boots for the moon) and a brigade of pre-teen scouts from the Communist Union of Youth that help their pal Andryusha get past the dreary adults who want to stop him from joining Sedikh.
But the Soviet touch is still obvious, particularly in the presence of broad-shouldered workers in tight overalls and the characters’ constant use of “comrades” when making significant pronouncements. One source claims that Sedikh’s rocketplane was named after Stalin, though it is not identified as such in the English-subtitled version that I watched.
“The Space Voyage” was virtually forgotten for many years; there is no record of a theatrical release beyond the Soviet Union. In 2005, the Russian industrial music duo Vetrophonia issued a limited edition DVD that matched their music to the silent movie; a well-worn print was used for this offering, but the score was inventive and synced up perfectly to the vintage sci-fi. A couple of years later, a print of “The Space Voyage” turned up in a number of U.S. retrospective series on vintage science fiction. But, to date, no U.S. label has offered “The Space Voyage” as a commercial DVD release; unauthorized copies without English subtitles can be downloaded from several websites.
I sincerely hope that a properly restored version turns up on DVD – or, at the very least, a U.S. label picks up the Vetrophonia interpretation, which was recently reissued in Russia. If “The Space Voyage” is not a lost classic, then it is certainly a marvelous curio within the realm of Soviet cinema and science fiction filmmaking.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!