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To the Stars By Hard Ways

In 2002, I had the possibly once in a lifetime chance to spend an entire summer driving across the United States. My traveling partner and I were able to indulge every whim, sometimes diverting wildly from our vaguely set course in order to visit some out of the way attraction or satisfy some curiosity or whim. Among the many things we both enjoyed was visiting air and space museums. Some we had targeted ahead of time. Others we learned about along the way. Some we stumbled upon entirely by chance out in the relative middle of nowhere. We were, at one point, making our way across Kansas after having already stumbled upon the Mid-America Air Museum in Liberal. We hit a town called Hutchinson, and as we made our way through caught a glimpse in the distance of a couple rockets. Obviously further investigation was warranted, and that in turn led us to The Cosmosphere. By this point in our travels, we’d hit more air and space museums than I can remember off the top of my head, and though I was not tiring of them (who can get enough Ham the space chimp? No one I’d want to know, that’s who), what made Cosmosphere one of the best was that a substantial portion of the museum was dedicated to the Soviet space program.

Other than the usual Sputnik mock-up, an Apollo-Soyuz model, and a picture of Laika, most of the museums we’d visited concentrated on the American space program — both because we were in the United States of America and because many of the details of the Soviet space program were only just beginning to come out from under the lock and key of the Cold War. The installation at the Cosmosphere was unique in the level of detail it put into things, covering the era of Soviet space exploration in a way more thorough than I’d ever seen before. As much as we loved all the aerospace museums we’d been to up until that point, the Cosmosphere remains one of the most memorable solely for the fact that it gave us something we’d never seen despite the fact that the Soviet space program was every bit as important to the overall exploration of space as was the US program. Given my peculiarities when it comes to politics and human relations, it’s probably not very surprising that I don’t really care to think of space exploration in terms of national accomplishments and much prefer to think of everything done by every nation who’s given it a go as contributing to the sum total of the human experience in space. I really don’t care where the point of origin was if the destination was outer space. So getting a look at Soviet space stuff was fantastic and finally let me see the space race from the other side — every bit as nationalistic as ours but also very different.

Some time later, as part of poking around in the back catalog of material that American International Pictures used to cobble together a stack of films, I saw my first Soviet science fiction film that wasn’t SolarisSolaris being for years the seeming only work of Soviet scifi ever made, if you believed American video stores, libraries, and film classes. AIP, however, released a bunch of science fiction films in the 60s that were comprised largely of scenes cribbed from foreign science fiction films — Soviet science fiction films, to be precise. I became obsessed with finding the original versions of the movies that would become the basis for drive-in cheapies like Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, First Spaceship on Venus, and Battle Beyond the Sun. For years, I had no luck. Then a few years ago, someone decided to release a trio of scifi films from East German movie studio DEFA. One of them, The Silent Star, was the film that served as the basis for First Spaceship on Venus, and while we are talking East Germany rather than the Soviet Union proper, it’s pretty safe to assume that what East Germany had to say wold be very similar to what one would get from the Soviets. So The Silent Star became my first exposure to pure Iron Curtain science fiction cinema.

Around the same time, Russian DVD companies began exploring their Soviet cinema past. Quite a few of the science fiction movies for which I’d been searching starting appearing at film festivals and, a short time thereafter, on DVD — though not in the United States. Luckily, I live in a heavily Russian part of Brooklyn, and popping down to a Russian DVD store in Brighton Beach is a quick trip for me. After one such trip, I came away with a fairly substantial pile of treasure including Planet of Storms, A Dream Come True, and To the Stars By Hard Ways. All three of these films had been mined by American companies to create other movies. Planet of Storms (Planeta Bur) became Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, the latter spicing up the original Soviet footage by splicing in shots of Mamie Van Doren as a space mermaid. A Dream Come True (Mechte navstrechu) was used to make Battle Beyond the Sun and Queen of Blood. And years later, 1982’s To the Stars By Hard Ways (Cherez ternii k zvyozdam) fell into the hands of notorious hack ‘n’ dub producer Sandy Frank and became Humanoid Woman.

They were exactly the movies for which I’d been searching. Much as stumbling upon the Cosmosphere in Kansas let me get my first substantial glimpse at space science through Soviet eyes, I finally got a chance to have a substantial look at science fiction from the other side of the Iron Curtain. To the Stars By Hard Ways is probably not the best place to start our exploration. It’s not the first Soviet scifi film, of course, and it’s not the best known or most influential. But it’s where we’re starting never the less, mostly because of my fondness for the film’s central character.

A group of cosmonauts on a routine mission happen across a derelict spaceship filled with what appear to be a group of genetically engineered humanoids — all dead except for one. The one is a young, androgynous woman named Niya (Yelena Metyolkina) who is regarded alternately as a tragic case and as a potential threat to international security. No one is exactly sure what she is — including Niya herself, as she suffers from memory gaps — but when she exhibits powers such as super speed and teleportation, it’s clear that she was created for some purpose of a potentially military nature. Eventually, sympathetic scientist Sergei Lebedev (Uldis Lieldidz) wins out over the more suspicious Professor Nadezhda Ivanova (Nadezhda Semyontsova), and he is allowed to bring Niya to his idyllic country home in the hopes that being around a loving but high scientific family will help her acclimate to her surroundings while also helping them understand her.

Things don’t progress smoothly, but they do progress. Niya quickly picks up human speech, though human behavior and emotion sometimes puzzles her — such as when she encounters the jealous would-be girlfriend of the family’s dashing young space cadet son Stepan (Vadim Ledogorov) on a beach and cannot grasp the woman’s sarcasm or jealousy. Niya is also deathly afraid of water, and a brief rain shower causes flashbacks that start to enable her to piece together the increasingly distressing fragments of her past. Still, all things considered, she’s getting along OK with her adoptive family, save for the occasional invasive mental experiments conducted by Professor Nadezhda — one of which reveals that Niya has a trigger buried deep within her brain that renders her compliant to the will of an external controller. Nadezhda fears what this could be used for, given Niya’s superhuman abilities, and who it might be used by. Niya herself is depressed to learn that someone else could simply issue a command and override her free will.

When Niya catches a news report about diplomats from a doomed planet named Dessa, a huge portion of her memory finally falls into place. It turns out she was designed by a Dessan dissident faction as part of some scheme to save the planet from its impending ecological decimation. When the humans agree to accompany the Dessans and donate equipment that will scrub their atmosphere and save the planet, Niya sneaks on board, not realizing that Nadezhda is part of the expedition, as is young Stepan. And then the movie grinds to a halt for a little bit, with the journey to Dessa dominated by an out-of-place comedic subplot involving a jerky octopus-like alien who hates cats and harasses Stepan to no end. At no point is this actually funny, and it keeps occupying my screen while steadfastly refusing to have anything to do with the actual plot of the rest of the film.

Luckily, the film gets back on track once the cosmonauts and Niya arrive on Dessa. Technologically, the job of repairing the atmosphere proves fairly easy for the earth people, but the power of their technology is less adept at overcoming the machinations of Dessa’s political landscape. It turns out the dying planet is lorded over by a vicious businessman who happens to have a monopoly on manufacturing breathable air. He’d rather see the planet destroyed than give up his lucrative cash cow. And it is when she finds herself caught in the middle of this struggle for the future of the planet that the final pieces of Niya’s purpose fall into place.

To the Stars By Hard Ways was based on Kirill Bulychev’s short story, A Difficult Child. In that story, a young humanoid (male, in this case) is found in space, part of a group of similar aliens who have been sent to Earth in hopes that they might survive the demise of their home planet and continue the propagation of their race, even if on a small scale. However, integration into human families and society proves more difficult than either group anticipated. To the Stars By Hard Ways takes the seed of Bulychev’s story and expands it substantially. In both the book and the movie based on it, it’s easy to read portions as autobiography. As a young man, Bulychev lived through the horror of Stalin’s purges and the hardship of World War II. His mother was a chemical engineer who was assigned to a munitions factory and later an experimental medicine laboratory, where she met and married her second husband, himself a chemist. His parents serve as the model for the perfect Soviet family in the story — a mother who is a doctor, a marine biologist father with a majestic beard and confident stride even when he’s wearing sandals and inadvisably short shorts (at least in the film version). Granted, the story also strips out background details, like how Bulychev’s mother went to the munitions factory after all her professors were executed, or how his father was a lawyer forced to perform a dance of false due process during the purges.

Bulychev’s mother cultivated the boy’s interest in science fiction as well as science, giving him comic books that eventually inspired him to go into writing and translation. While working on a project in Burma, Bulychev came into a stash of science fiction novels left by British soldiers. Shortly thereafter, he began his own career as a science fiction writer, frequently risking censorship or worse for his refusal even under extreme pressure to tow the line — he never joined the state union of writers and he never joined the Communist party, keenly remembering as he did that “They killed almost everyone I might ever have been related to.” Despite his iconoclastic nature, he still achieved a tremendous amount of fame and success, leading eventually to his collaboration with film director Richard Viktorov on To the Stars By Hard Ways.

When the Soviet Union began to dissolve in the late 1980s, Bulychev was initially elated at the removal of the oppressive yoke and expressed profound optimism for the future and the potential for a more united humanity to achieve great things. Sadly, it soon became apparent that such a vision wasn’t going to be the case, and Bulychev soon turned a critical voice to the state of post-Soviet Russia, decrying the disorganization, stagnation of science, rise of the Mafia, and the return of religious and mystical superstitions. “I cannot for the life of me stand conversations about flying saucers, ESP,” he once said, “mages, wizards, and seers, new chronologies, and the goodness and humanity of comrade Lenin. Or the predictions of Nostradamus.” His combination of humanism, rationalism, and skepticism rings through in To the Stars By Hard Ways, a movie that balances hope and despair, the potential and limits of technology, and the success and failure of the Soviet model.

The most overt piece of pro-Soviet propaganda comes in the form of Turanchoks (Vladimir Fyodorov, Ruslan and Ludmila and Savage Hunt of King Stakh), the ruthless capitalist who has the planet of Dessa by the throat. Oh, and he also happens to be a cackling, overcompensating midget who wields the market like a bludgeon to empower and enrich himself to the detriment of the planet and all the people on it — even going so far as to tolerate his own pollution-caused stature if it means bringing in a few more dollars. And for some reason, he also suffers from a near crippling ticklishness. On the flip side, however, the movie subverts the propaganda by pinning blame for environmental destruction not just on the greedy capitalist, but also on the hypocritically condescending Soviet Union. Despite the rhetoric surrounding Turanchoks, the film ends by announcing that the scenes of environmental devastation and blight are not sets; they are actual shots from locations within the Soviet Union. The title card announcing this was, not surprisingly, chopped from many prints of the film.

Also, it’s not like greedy businessmen with a stranglehold on the air market is a purely Communist idea. Total Recall‘s plot revolved around pretty much the same thing. In fact, the murderous scumbag businessman was a pretty standard go-to villain in 80s science fiction and action films. And the environmentalism of To the Stars is less about Soviet propaganda and more akin to the environmental apocalypse films of the 1970s. The onset of the oil crisis and the discovery of a massive hole in the ozone layer, not to mention increasingly intense smog problems in the major cities of the world (among other issues) served as a (sadly temporary) wake-up call for people about how we were using the planet. And so science fiction entered an era when environmental destruction, more than war (but usually some combination of the two), was the culprit behind the collapse of society.

Despite the flashing lights and attempts at post Star Wars special effects, To the Stars By Hard Ways fits in much more comfortably with the more contemplative science fiction of the 1970s than it does the 1980s, and in particular the overall mood reminds me of nothing so much as it does the winsome melancholy of the Japanese anime series Galaxy Express 999. Both feature sweeping space opera and a sense of mystery about them, but beneath that both are very human, very sad stories about loss — of youth, innocence, identity and place. The viewer’s engagement in the two main characters in Galaxy Express makes you forget the overall absurdity of a show about a steam locomotive flying through space, in much the same way that I think the empathy one feels for Niya in To the Stars By Hard Ways overshadows any dodginess on the part of the special effects or the curious facial hair affectations of the people of planet Dessa, who have decided that growing half a Klingon mustache out of the corner of their lower lip is the way to go.

If I might steal from one of the more talented and considered writers on the subject of cult films — and one who has spent a fair amount of time plying the waters of Eastern Bloc science fiction cinema — Todd Stadtman from Die Danger Die Die Kill, in writing about Indian films, suggested (and I agree) that much of the time filmmakers were well aware of the short-comings of their special effects and executed them with the hope that the audience would understand that these were best-effort representations and thus agree to play along. With a film like To the Stars By Hard Ways, working in a genre where there was very little in the way of support morally, politically, or financially, directors like Richard Viktorov and his effects personnel had to make due with what they could. There was no ILM, no 20th Century Fox willing to dump millions into the process. So they ask us to play along, and I’m more than willing since, like I said, I really don’t find most of the special effects to be bad. The home service robot is a bit goofy, but I feel like if you get hung up on goofy looking robots, then you won’t get very far as a fan of science fiction. And for that matter — since Star Wars set the standard for special effects at the time, let’s question the appearance of its robots. Why the hell would you build one humanoid robot with arms that don’t work and another that has to roll around and thus can be foiled by stairs, ladders, or small ledges?

I don’t find the special effects in To the Stars By Hard Ways to be all that laughable anyway. There are some cheap ones, some that aren’t executed well, but overall I think a lot of what the movie does works, and where it doesn’t To the Stars compensates by trading in one of the things much science fiction cinema has abandoned: ideas. Science fiction in the Soviet Union, despite the country’s commitment to the Space Race, was generally not well regarded. Why are you messing around with space aliens and other galaxies when you could be making proper films about the Revolution? When a script for a science fiction film did manage to work its way through the bureaucracy and get approved, it was usually then granted only the most meager of budgets. Between the lack of funding and the fact that wanting to make one could potentially put you on a dangerous watch list, those who chose never the less to turn their imaginations toward outer space must have been motivated by a tremendous passion for the genre — an artistic sacrifice that I think deserves a lot more consideration that just a room full of people pointing and laughing.

To the Stars By Hard Ways may have been something of a special effects blow-out for the time by Soviet standards (in much the same way Starcrash was for Italy, and with similar budgetary and technical woes), but the special effects are not really the focus of the film. Instead, it relies on its characters and story to be the core of the film. I’ve said many times before that I am no opponent to big, effects-laden scifi films that are actually just action films with some future stuff taped to the guns. But even more than that, I’m a huge fan of science fiction that makes an effort to be about something — even (especially) when the message is delivered in a somewhat ham-handed fashion(which is the case more times than not). As long as the message has an air of authenticity, of honesty — of earnestness — about it, then it’s probably going to click with me. And To the Stars By Hard Ways suffers no shortage of ham-handed earnestness to lend it a haunting beauty and sense of melancholy beneath all the wild costumes and candy colored blinking lights.

If this film has a kindred spirit, it’s another of my favorite earnest scifi message movies from the other side of the Berlin Wall, 1989’s Hard to Be a God/em>. It shares the general air of melancholy as well as the theme of powerlessness despite great power. Soviet science fiction generally made an effort to accentuate the positive, to show that through equality and the application of fantastically idealized notions of Communist can-do. But there was often also something else buried beneath the propaganda. Perhaps it’s just a trick of my own perception, but every now and then there’s the feeling that the universe is big enough that humans are going to run into a lot of things they are powerless to affect, no matter how stolid a supporter of jaunty Communist principles they may be. Hard to Be a God came out amid the full-on collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and it features characters who despite advanced technology and morality (or what is perceived as advanced morality), cannot save a population from itself. Although we can assume that ultimately the cosmonauts in To the Stars will succeed in saving Dessa, it is not without substantial sacrifice, and in the end regardless of success or failure Niya is unmoored and without a home.

In both films, science and reason go head-to-head with oppressive regimes — religion and superstition in Hard to Be a God, greed and paranoia in To the Stars By Hard Ways. And both films seem to champion the cause of free thought and science while also admonishing those who think the road will be easy simply because they are in the right. The characters in Hard to Be a God spend years studying and covertly integrating into an alien society, but they never succeed at figuring out how to successfully nudge it out of barbarism, resulting in chaos and collapse when plans come to a head. The scientists of To the Stars are confident that they have the technology to save Dessa, but they are unprepared to deal with the political machinations on the planet and unable to grasp the notion that some would actually like to prolong the suffering of the planet in order to enrich themselves.

Science fiction, when it’s at its best, deals with large questions about society and the future, and in doing so can often come to conflicting conclusions (if indeed there are any conclusions to be made). This can be doubly true of Soviet science fiction, which had to walk a razor’s edge between paying lip service to the Communist party, embracing the portions of Communism the creators thought were genuinely worthwhile, and criticizing the things the creators felt were propelling humanity down the incorrect path. It can make movies like To the Stars and Hard to be a God sometimes frustrating affairs, but in the end I find them both to be well worth the effort it takes to decipher them and contemplate the questions they ask.

The mood of To the Stars rests squarely on the slight shoulders of its star, and as Niya I think Yelena Metyolkina does a fantastic job at pulling the viewer into a character that is terrified, powerful, confused, dangerous, vulnerable but above all lost and lonely. Metyolkina’s large eyes and expressive face are used to great effect, and she moves her lanky frame in a way that makes it apparent she is like a human without being a human. She’s weird and quirky at times but never anything less than sympathetic — especially for anyone who ever felt they were weird or an outcast. She is every bit alien in her presence but also touchingly human in her quest to simply figure out where she belongs in the scheme of things. As she discovers bits and pieces about herself and her supposed purpose, it’s hard not to feel the heartbreak along with her as every revelation pushes her further and further away from belonging anywhere.

To the Stars also relies on not-so-subtle make-up effects to assist Yelena Metyolkina in communicating the effect of the plot on its central character. When first we meet her, she is pale white and vacant, but the more time she spends with the Lebedevs, the more flush and colored and human looking she becomes. As she inches closer and closer to her final revelation about her past and her future, she becomes increasingly waxen and cadaverous in appearance, with skin going yellowish and huge dark circles forming under her eyes. The film never comments on her having any sort of empathic relationship to what happens around her, but neither is the make-up so low-key that it isn’t obvious. It’s not high tech, it’s not flashy, but it is effective and just one more way a film like this shows that you can rise above budgetary or technical limitations and, in fact, often benefit from such limitations.

The rest of the case provides a solid if unspectacular supporting characters. Vadim Ledogorov is a good looking young man, but I think he plays Stepan a little too… not exactly whiny but, well, kind of childish, especially when he’s surrounded by so many upstanding and proper adults. I suppose there’s a comparison to be made between Stepan, who acts like a child, and Niya, who initially has the naivety of a child but is very different from the much flightier Stepan. Maybe the filmmakers recognized Stepan was a bit of a weak character, which is why they also saddled him with that dumb octopus alien subplot. The film’s other, more interesting substantial character is Nadezhda Semyontsova’s Professor Ivanova. Initially, it looks as though the film may be setting her up to be the foil for the more sympathetic Sergei, especially when she seems so determined to probing Niya’s brain and is accused by Sergei’s mother of being unfeeling because she has no children of her own and has no husband.

The “woman who is angry because she can’t have babies” trope is a tired and insulting archetype, and it seemed like it would be out of place in a film that otherwise strove to be much more forward thinking and egalitarian. Luckily, that criticism of her is soundly dismissed as petty and old-fashioned. A woman does not need to draw her sense of self-worth from her ability to marry and breed. Still, she seems rather a villainous character in some ways, but ultimately her objective commitment to experimentation is infused with an increasing compassion. All science, no art or all art, no science — neither one works out well in the end.

Ivanova’s journey to revelation begins when she discovers the trigger in Niya’s mind that renders her a slave to the commands of a third party. Initially fascinated by the trigger, she begins to revile it the more she realizes what it can be used for and, more importantly, what it does to the alien woman when Niya herself discovers that her will can be flipped on and off by anyone who knows the proper code. It’s on the trip to Dessa, however, that Ivanova comes full circle from Niya’s primary antagonist to her closest friend (though always at a distance, as neither woman is 100% comfortable with such displays). Stepan remains too goofy. Niya’s own people are too suspicious. But Niya and Ivanova are eventually able to understand one another. At no point does it really become a mother-daughter relationship or undercut Ivanova’s assertion that women are more than their ability to have babies and raise children. Like the space journey itself, the friendship is hard one by traveling down a thorny path.

It’s nice to see a movie where the central and most complex characters are two women, one young and mysterious, the other older and brilliant. It seems initially that the story will revolve around Sergei, but he quickly becomes a background character. It then looks like it could veer into the realm of bad romantic territory, but young Stepan is also quickly relegated to the background, though there is still a stilted stab at romance between he and Niya. That little aside, however, seems properly in line with Niya’s evolution and desperation to find somewhere she belongs, and the romantic subplot occupies very little of the overall run time. The bulk of the film’s action and philosophy then are handled by Niya and Ivanova, and both actresses are superb.

I don’t normally point out when a movie has made an appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000, primarily because my relationship with that show is rather complicated (as it is for many cult film fans). But it also seems like every time I don’t mention it, I get peppered with notes about how such and such film was on MST3K. So consider this the mention. To the Stars By Hard Ways shows up in one of the early, pre-Comedy Channel (as we called Comedy Central back then). It’s not a very funny episodes, even by the standards of MST3K, and most of the time there are no comments being made — which I guess makes it better for watching the movie itself. They watch the truncated Sandy Frank version, known as Humanoid Woman, and the other part of the reason I mention MST3K is because it’s the only place where I’ve been able to see this version.

Sandy Frank made a name — not altogether good — for himself buying foreign movies and cartoons, editing them, and redubbing them for American consumption. He’s probably best known for his involvement with Japanese material, being the man who dubbed and distributed the Gamera films, the Ultra-7 television show, and perhaps biggest of all, Battle of the Planets. Frank’s version of To the Stars By Hard Ways actually isn’t all that awful a presentation, all things considered. Obviously he’s cut a substantial amount of the movie, but the basic plot is still intact, and the dubbing is serviceable. Unlike AIP, he does not chop the movie into parts and edit sequences into other movies with different actors and stories. In fact, his cut of the film isn’t drastically different than what was done to it when it was restored and remastered for a new edition. It muddles things a bit, but most of the film’s intentions remain intact, if somewhat over-simplified.

One of my biggest issues with MST3K, besides the fact that I think I’ve pretty well outgrown what taste I might have had for “ridicule comedy,” is that so many people seem to thoughtlessly accept that if something appears on MST3K, then it is obviously terrible and must be marched through the village commons and subjected to the derisive sneering of its betters — sometimes without any regard for the actual merits of the film or any effort to think beyond the surface. Yes, I know it’s unfair to blame the show for the actions of fans, just like I know I shouldn’t harbor a grudge against operation Ivy for inspiring a generation of terrible ska-punk bands. And I’ve laughed at plenty of MST3K jokes, and I like when they are being clever instead of just being insulting. But it’s hard to stomach the sad side-effect of the format: knee jerk stupidity and endless commentary from the peanut gallery. I can’t really set foot in a screening of any cult film at a retrospective cinema in New York, so thunderous are the sounds of forced snorting, ironic laughter, and bad jokes from people who aren’t nearly as witty as they think they are. Give it a rest, folks. Sorry, tangential rant, but it really bugs me. It’s one thing to criticize — that implies you’ve thought about and considered something, and have in turn assembled a series of thoughts regarding it. It’s another thing to just point and laugh and spit. From what MST3K wrought in theaters to the website People of Wal-Mart, the comedy of belittling and ridiculing the lives and works of others gets under my skin.

Ehh, sorry about that. Well, not really, but I’d hate for this to devolve into some sort of debate about Mystery Science Theater, especially when my point was really just, “don’t email me to tell me this movie was on MST3K; I know.” So let’s move on and talk about…oh, let’s say the music by Aleksei Rybnikov. Rybnikov is sort of the Russian Hans Zimmer, combining typically bombastic symphonic scoring with occasional experimental excursions and flourishes. He’s worked as a composer on everything from historical epics such as Vasili Buslayev to batshit loopy fantasy films like the Russian/Indian co-production Ajooba to modern Lord of the Rings inspired films like Wolfhound. His work on To the Stars is a bizarre and engaging blend of traditional cinematic orchestration, synth-powered electronica and disco, and old fashioned organs and harpsichord. At times the soundtrack seems to be at war with the images — anachronistic harpsichord, for example, accompanying scenes of advanced technology and space travel. But it works remarkably well and helps lend the film it’s quirky, alien feel as much as does star Yelena Metyolkina.

There’s a temptation, even for me, to couch my praise for a film like this in an “I know it’s a corny film, but…” qualifier, and that’s not fair. There is no qualifier or caveat. I love science fiction movies of this type, and To the Stars By Hard Ways was thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking. The original version of the film was lost for a while in the dust of collapse and rebuilding, but modern Russian audiences eventually rediscovered it and turned it into a cult phenomenon. The director’s son eventually obtained the original negatives and recut the film into a two-hour feature, removing some of the clumsier Soviet era propaganda and the film’s brief flashes of nudity. Both the original and restored versions are now available if you know where to look, and the looking is well worth it. To the Stars ended up being not just a fun space opera but also a surprisingly haunting meditation on the nature of humanity and the desire to understand one’s palce in the world (or the universe). If you appreciate science fiction films that place ideas and philosophy at the forefront — but also don’t forget all the flashing lights and spaceships — then To the Stars is well worth watching.

Release Year: 1982 | Country: Soviet Union | Starring: Yelena Metyolkina, Vadim Ledogorov, Uldis Lieldidz, Yelena Fadeyeva, Vatslav Dvorzhetsky, Nadezhda Semyontsova, Aleksandr Lazarev, Aleksandr Mikhajlov, Boris Shcherbakov, Igor Ledogorov, Igor Yasulovich, Gleb Strizhenov, Vladimir Fyodorov | Screenplay: Kir Bulychyov, Richard Viktorov | Director: Richard Viktorov, Nikolai Viktorov | Cinematography: Aleksandr Rybin | Music: Aleksei Rybnikov | Original Title: Cherez ternii k zvyozdam

9 thoughts on “To the Stars By Hard Ways”

  1. Right on about all the snark MST3K birthed into the world. The worst example was when I was watching PUMPING IRON with a bunch of people and one of the comments was “Hey, where’s the follow focus? Ha-ha!”, followed by a stream of put downs about its technical polish. I mean seriously– it’s a 30-plus year old low budget documentary and I’m betting they basically had a crew of four at the most. If you can’t meet a movie half way, just stick to whatever shows up at the multiplex because god knows what’ll happen if you run into something that wasn’t pimped out by Entertainment Weekly or has subtitles.

  2. The only copy of this film that I’ve ever seen had no subtitles and appeared to be one of those ‘camera pointed at a theatrical screening’ affairs. So it made no damn sense at all and looked terrible, but I still dug it.

    Spot-on assessment of MST3K’s questionable legacy. I watched and enjoyed the show when it was on (like you, I enjoyed it more when it was clever than when it was condescending) but really can’t stand the fans who think they can do it too and think This Island Earth and Danger: Diabolik are bad movies just because they were on MST3K.

  3. Fascinating stuff. the BFI did a season of Soviet sci-fi and I had tickets for loads of them, but it ended up being during the Great Job Meltdown of 2011 so I only ended up seeing Planet of Storms and The Silent Star. The latter I found slightly hard work, though the former has a totally boss robot.

    I know what you mean about MST3K. I love it, but a perfectly solid little Brit chiller like Devil Doll now gets routinely panned just because they covered it.

  4. I have not seen this film, but I’ve now been convinced that some day, I will. And Keith, I think one of the most powerful aspects of Teleport City is the unwavering appreciation of world (weird?) cinema without caveats. Or, at least, without preconceived caveats. I could suggest that it is a lot like the anthropological approach of “methodological relativism,” because it is, but I’d probably annoy everyone except myself in so doing.

    As for MST3K… I think most of us enjoy the show in its better moments, but exactly unlike Teleport City, it engenders a subculture that fixates on ridicule rather than appreciating the weirdness of its subject matter. Maybe TC needs to make some puppets and create a new version of the show that is both less abrasive and more celebratory of absurdity rather than prone to ridicule. As a grad student, I don’t even have two bits to throw to such a cause, but I’ll nonetheless gladly scrounge ‘em and throw down to see such a thing happen.

  5. First off, thanks for the shout out, Keith. I don’t remember thinking the effects in this were all that bad. I liked the flying saucer, and the matte work, while not necessarily fooling the eye, was often stunning looking, which is all I ask for. And, yeah, the robot was dumb looking, but, like you said, not any dumber than C-3po — or Twiki, for that matter.

    One thing I really liked about To The Stars was the fact that, while being a science fiction film, it was also, at its core, a mystery. That’s something it shares with a lot of other Eastern Bloc sci-fi films, and which contrasts with a lot of Western sci-fi films, which typically busy themselves with the business of overcoming a peril that is clearly established at the outset. In films like this and The Silent Star the heroes spend the lion’s share of the time just trying to figure out what the hell is going on, let alone what exactly the nature of the peril is. It feels like an engaging way of evoking humankind’s powerlessness in the face of the whole endeavor of space exploration, as well as an indication of a level of humility you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a cinema so freighted with nationalist expectations.

    And, BTW, I love MST3K, but hate that I can no longer attend screenings of classic film noirs in San Francisco without hearing a host of idiots tittering away at every perceived anachronism. I’m not going to let those idiots ruin MST3K for me, though.

  6. Many Soviet sci-fi films are now on YouTube thanks to Mosfilm and Lenfilm’s official accounts. Sadly, most of them lack subtitles.

  7. Nice review. I haven’t seen too much of Russian cinema. “Night Watch” and “Day Watch” (which I thought were overrated, even though I appreciated them on some levels) are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head, but it’s refreshing to be reminded that there is quality film in other parts of the world that I’ve yet to explore.

  8. Coincidentally, I watched that MST episode for the first time just a few weeks ago, and found the movie very unusual.
    As crazy as I am about MST, I agree with PART of what’s been said about its “questionable legacy.” But the thing is, I’ve almost NEVER, EVER watched the show for the insult jokes themselves (which kind of puts me on the outside even AMONG MST fans, though not all of them), since there are countless other kinds of joke. In fact, I DIDN’T notice a whole lot of genuine insults in that particular episode. If anything, they seemed kind of taken with the movie themselves.

  9. We did a podcast on this a year or so ago, and we enjoyed it.

    One of our thoughts was that while the Political Content was obviously present in the form of the evil capitalist dwarf, that wasn’t really something new for an American audience. As you point out, we’re used to the idea of evil businesspeople. What struck me on the PC front was the bit where, after they first use their atmosphere cleaner on Dessa, one guy yells something like “this wasn’t a miracle! This wasn’t an accident! This wasn’t gods! This was humans doing things for themselves!” I thought that was an example of then-current Soviet philosophy in opposition to the stereotype of God-obsessed Western thought.

    “Perhaps it’s just a trick of my own perception, but every now and then there’s the feeling that the universe is big enough that humans are going to run into a lot of things they are powerless to affect, no matter how stolid a supporter of jaunty Communist principles they may be.”

    Yes, don’t forget the part in the middle of the film where they get a distress call from another planet, race to the rescue, and arrive just in time to watch the planet blow up. (The effects kind of let the movie down, here–they could obviously only afford a couple of angles, with only one or two takes for each angle, and no exterior shots of any kind–and as a result it’s a bit hard to tell what’s going on.)

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