Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Retro-Futurism was Sure to Go: 10 Cool International 60s Sci-fi Trips Streaming on Prime and Criterion

 Lately I've been unable to escape a yen for all things sci-fi mid-60s --the stretch between Sputnik and the moon landing, when an ex-Nazi rocketeer named Werner released, through Disney of all things, a series of speculative documentaries about NASA's plans for ze future: moon landings, orbiting satellites, revolving space stations, little robot-armed one man capsules, and maybe even explorations of Mars and Venus. Movies--from Kubrick's to Margheriti's--took it all as writ. Science later realized a lot of his proposals wouldn't work (like you couldn't duplicate Earth gravity that easy), so these films don't get trotted out too often. But we've got the movies that sprang from them and now they look better than ever, streaming through the ether to your little paper-thick phone!

Von Braun points out his plan for a new space station in a 1955 Disney film. 
This round revolving shape would henceforth be the go-to design
for the next decade+'s science fiction space stations. 

more post-Axis sci-fi: X FROM OUTER SPACE, THE

This era between Sputnik and Apollo became known in comic book circles as the Silver Age: the era when Marvel made superheroes that were complex, with a cohesive universe full of crazy Steve Ditko abstraction. Onscreen, the squaresville atomic caution of the golden 50s lurched into colorful space opera cocktail decadence. Strong female characters no longer had to fight sexist blowhards to be respected as officers. Now they could heads of communications and operations, doctors in astro-biology and chemistry; they could be pretty without having male crew members snicker behind their backs or lick their lips. I've deliberately eschewed any movie from this list that contains even a hint of that type of dated 50s sexism!  I've also avoided any streaming titles of less than watchable quality, though your mileage may vary. So.... What are we waiting for!? The future's not going to get much older!

(1962) Dir. Wesley Barry
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A

I'm beginning to see what the fuss was about vis-a-vis this being Andy Warhol's favorite movie. It's fast becoming one of my favorites too! It contains everything I love in a late night sci-fi chill-out film: deep dark reds and grays, extendable tubes, silver eyeballs, skeletons, space age decor, pulp novel skies, heightened theatricality, an 'all in a single night' time frame, and spooky analog sci-fi music. I love the total absence of exterior shots and that it all occurs against painted backdrops that seem lifted right out off the covers of early-60s space age paperbacks (including great lighting and cinematography from the legendary Hal Mohr). It also has an endlessly fascinating premise that warrants its talky nature: it's a post-nuclear future where cities have become more advanced than ever but most humans are sterile. Robots have become highly advanced and do most of our heavy thinking and machining, but not everyone is happy about it. They don't like that the machines look like us, even if they have gray skin and silver eyes so you can tell them apart (for now). Don Megowan stars as "the" Craigis, a member of the Order of Flesh and Blood, a space age luddite hate group, out to halt the production of humanoid-looking robots as they're too much like "us" for comfort. They hassle robots on the street and strut around in fascist sashes and Civil War caps. Dudley Manlove--in his second best role--is one of the robots, cementing the film's queer-coded message (i.e. 'we're closer than you know, we mean you no harm, and we don't intend to stay in the shadows much longer"). David Cross (no relation) is Pax, the 'clicker' (as the robots are derisively called) in 'rapport' with Cragis' sister Esme (Frances McCann). Cragis tries to get her to break it off via a 3 AM visit, but not everyone is afraid of having all their needs met by a mechanical device in this most perfect of all eternal nights. She just happens to be up having cocktails with her friend (as I say, great stuff!)

Beautiful to look at and never boring (even if no one seems to ever 'move'), this is clearly some writer's real labor of love. I like to imagine it got workshopped at some off-off-Broadway East Village coffeehouse all through the 50s as, for all its measured talkiness, it's never dull, uneven, or repetitive. Occasional deadpan jokes ("we did make you a bit thinner,") land like gentle spiders amidst the vocalizing space age echoes on the soundtrack (courtesy an uncredited Eward J. Kay). The serene George Milan is Acto, the head robot; he gets the most lines. Able to seem comforting yet otherworldly at the same time, Milan makes a great team with Dudley Manlove as his right "man". So much more than a Woodian bad movie, I imagine it plays best watched as I watch it, by oneself, late at night, with a loved one sleeping next to you (as I tend to do), so you can gaze down at them occasionally and wonder... Andy? 

(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti
*** / Amazon Image - A

An instant immersion in a future world of moon bases and orbiting space stations, cocktails, anti-matter bombs, and astronauts soaring through black soundstage space on visible wires onto planets that breathe out through their craters. The ever-marvelous Giacomo Rossi Stuart (Kill Baby, Kill) is Commander Rod Jacskon, in charge of the Gamma One space station, tasked with finding the gravitational disturbance that's destroying Earth's weather patterns. Sultry-eyed Terry Sanchez (Ombretta Colli) is his head of communications and an organized officer; Rod loves her, but his needy cat-eyed fiancee (Halina Zalewski) on Earth ("a no-good ground chick!" as his pissy right hand man calls her) happens to be the daughter of General Norton  (Enzo 'Italian Burt Lancaster' Fiermonte)! "It's too involved" Rod tells Terri. There's no time for that now, though; if we don't find the source of the disturbance there'll be no Earth to go back to, and--as the ineffective Norton puts it--"it's not a matter of days, but hours!" As with all the best science fiction films, we never barely see Earth at all aside from some disaster shots on the monitors and a coda funeral/memorial. Instead director Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti) makes sure everything is space ships and a soundstage alien asteroids, full of odd sound effects and eerie music.

The wild planet they find causing the trouble is an uninhabited but impressive red ball, 25 miles in diamaeter, with fields of cold red gelatin quicksand and islands of hairy ground surrounding craters breathing out plumes of cold steam. Going into one to plant anti-matter charges, they find themselves attacked by white tendrils that bleed but repair themselves as soon as Rod stops hacking at them. It's quite a destination.

I love this crazy movie. It has some of the best dubbing ever, matching the lips with weird hesitance and fast-talking when necessary. Dialogue is rich with technical savvy, using the weird pauses of the actors to create mood and drama... rather than just making them sound drunk (though there's that too): "Read your retros - don't get clogged, Mack!" / "Who's got the flagship?!" / "I'm engaged to her, Terry... not that... I want to be."

The imdb score is unfairly low, and perhaps based on old faded VHS pan and scans but the Prime print puts it on a whole other level. The deep greys, blacks and reds that make up the bulk of the colors look really rich and alluring now, making Gamma-1 seem the place to be, way cooler than the Enterprise or anyplace like that. So if space opera style drama and mature adults doing work as an organized group in constant radio communication is your bag, with plenty of women in capable professional positions (Rod doesn't really even try to stop Terry from going along on all the dangerous missions - telling her "it's every man for himself"). This film should be the cornerstone of your spiritual Euro-6os science fiction pyramid. As Commander Rod says "use your retros!" And then seek out Wild Wild Planet, Battle of the Planets, The Snow Devils and The Green Slime as well as Battle of the Worlds (below),

(1968) Dir. Peter Bogdanovich
*** / Amazon Image - D+

When I can't sleep in a foreign land I like to fall asleep to this crazy movie, with Mamie Van Doren and assorted blondes wearing seashell tops and fin-evoking hiphuggers, as Venusian mermaids telepathically interacting with cosmonauts from a relatively expensive-looking Russian science fiction film. As the cosmonauts encounter man-eating plants and various dinosaurs, the hippie mermaids watch and sing, swim, spy, eat raw fish while treading water, worship a pterodactyl, and wait to see what happens. When the cosmonauts shoot down their pterodactyl god (in self defense), the ladies take action, get really  mad and create volcanos and floods through chanting like witches. 

The story of this brilliant melange is cinematic legend: Roger Corman acquired the rights to several 60s Russian science fiction films on a trip east and tasked young Peter Bogdanovich with dubbing one into English and adding Mamie Van Doren and a cadre of her fellow blonde sea nymphs (with great hip hugger green lame flair slacks subliminally evoking mermaid tails -- a truly inspired high-fashion solution courtesy Alice Mitchell) to jack the sex appeal. With the new soundtrack's near constant flow of ocean sounds, eerie pitch-shifting electronic wind, spooky-swooping two-note siren singing, the satisfying ambient noises, the deep mechanical voice of the ship's robot, occasional bursts of Keith Benjamin's score, and Bogdanovich's hipster narration (as the younger, romantically inclined cosmonaut, replete with allusions to Welles in Lady from Shanghai), it's the best white noise in the galaxy.

Some of the ways Peter (and production coordinator Polly Platt) merged new and old footage is ingenious: a Hollywood-made rubber pterodactyl corpse washes up in the surf for the girls to find, pray over and send back... back to the sea (after the far more elaborate Russian counterpart is shot down by the cosmonauts).  I love the dopey, near muppet-like voice (uncredited) of Commander Lockhart, and the chef's hat Mamie wears when praying (evoking the hat worn by the one Venusian we see in a reflection at the very end of the Russian version); I love the way the sirens completely blend in with the rocks around them when lolling in the sun (the way seals often do) or the attention to clever details in the underwater scenes (the Russian footage showing nice undersea flourishes like a cloth octopus, merging with our LA sirens spying and undulating). The giant maneating plant, the attack of the man-sized Allosauruses, a passing brontosaur, are just icing on the cake

The Prime copy is bad, but there is no existing good quality DVD I know of, and frankly that's a shame, the bane of the PD property, I guess. I have the Retromedia double disk set that includes the Russian original (Planeta Ber, aka Planet of Storms)- which looks amazing but one can see why Corman felt their needed to be an infusion of hot blondes. The proof he was right is visible in Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (a remix of the same footage but without the sea witch coven), but the frame of Retromedia's version keeps skipping! PS - if you know of a good quality non-skipping transfer of VTTPOPW let me know!).

(1966) Dir. Mario Bava
**** / Amazon Image - A+

Fourth on the bill, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires is actually the best as far as gorgeous cinematography and clever, if not always successful, in-camera effects (Mario Bava is still ahead of his time). The storyline fuses elements of Last Man on Earth with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and looks forward to Night of the Living Dead, and most notably Alien, which clearly borrowed more than a few things. Wise choice, as it's a gorgeous and fascinating film that would be worth seeing even if you had to see it in Italian without subtitles (and didn't speak it). The plot concerns a rescue mission to a strange foggy planet where the soon-dead crewmen are taken over by fourth dimensional aliens eager to hitch a ride off their dying world. The co-ed crew wear sexy high-collared black leather uniforms with deep yellow trim (the sexiest, coolest and most high fashion space crew uniforms ever), and their ship is a huge minimalist black floored matte and mirage wonder. The outside miniatures make the ship look at times like soap on the rope anchored to the bottom of an aquarium (but that's okay) and the planet is a bizarre landscape or red and blue gels, swirling fog, petrified tentacle tree rocks, quicksand type burbling pits, and weird noises and disembodied voices barely audible in the whooshing winds. The shots of the outside guards looking deep into fog for signs of life are some of the most eerily beautiful in all of science fiction. The dubbing is good (lead Barry Sullivan does his own) and the music is super eerie. It just gets better with every viewing, especially in this HD color-restored super-marvelous shape.

(1966) Dir. Curtis Harrington 
*** (image quality: A-)

A tale of first contact with Mars; space exploration is done mostly by young people played by hip Corman company future-stars like Dennis Hopper and John Saxon, led by Basil Rathbone. The mission: escorting a female vampire alien from a Martian moon to Earth after her ship crash lands. Ready the launch! It's a case of reverse engineering as Corman protege Curtis Harrington intercuts footage from Corman's imported print of Soviet bloc sci-fi film MESTRE NASTRESHU. Acting as a fine mirror to issues of gender as well as Soviet-American relations of the era, the footage is matched brilliantly to its respective sides: the Dionysian and ornate deep red Russian footage for the female vampire Martian ship and the "Red" planet surfaces / the Harrington-shot Earth scenes and space ship interiors a nice powder blues with cafeteria grays on threadbare Apollonian sets; the combination works perfectly - allowing for an artistic level of special effects quality and, for devotees, a chance to marvel at the ingenuity Harrington used in matching the footage. The end result is not only atmospheric and strangely sexy, it's coherent, and looks way more expensive than it was, not to mention there's a uniquely bitchy silent antagonism between Florence Marly's classy, mute green-skinned queen and Saxon's girlfriend (Judi Meredith), who seems to wear even more make-up. Indeed, her lipstick and eyeliner alone can cut through any amount of interplanetary white noise, but in this case, the Prime print comes in blazing restored colors. See it and realize that--in warning of the short-sightedness science,  the prioritizing of bringing the human-devouring, egg-laying monster back alive no matter how many astronauts die along the way, this is one of the influences behind Alien.  It's also short (79 minutes), and damned nice to look at it late at night while drifting towards dreamland. 

(1966) Dir. Hajime Sato
** / Amazon Image - A

Thanks to an amazing Prime HD image, this sexy-terrible Japanese fusion of underwater Bondian supervillain lair-trashing and Jules Verne-style fish people enslavement (ala AIP's War Gods of the Deep, Japan's Atragon, the Philippine's Beyond Atlantis, and Italy's Island of the Fishmen (AKA Screamers - also on Prime) is finally worth seeing! A young Sonny Chiba and a cute blond gaijin named Peggy Neal (The X from Outer Space - see below) star as a pair of intrepid diving reporters who follow fishmen tracks in search of a missing scientist while their contact in the American Navy (Franz Gruber) tries to get clearance to help them. Naturally the lovers find a grotto underwater, run into a squad of fish men; wake up at a secret lair on the bottom of the sea after trying to find her dropped camera, their wetsuits replaced by sleek white tunics; youthfully gorgeous and well-lit you understand their horror when the evil sunglasses-wearing villain starts converting them to ugly fish people -"with no differentiation between the sexes"!.  Biloxi-born Neal's revulsion at being "scaly" comes off as comedy and the inevitable fish people have opaque black marble eyes are set too close together and skin is like silver appliance wrapping; when their mind control radio signal gets jammed up they run amok, shooting everyone in sight and carefully fighting hand-to-hand (their fish suits get torn up really easily - as the now glistening HD print shows all too clearly). Meanwhile Gruber labors to convince the top brass to send a search sub once the pair go missing. But will he find them in time?

Towards the wild climax the editing gets really wonky; each shot last whole seconds longer than it should; asides and pauses for no reason drag the usually frenzied editing scheme of an 'underwater lair about to implode' kind of climax to an agonized crawl. The general space of time between a shot of someone looking at something / cut to what or whom they're looking at clearly needs to be shorter. When the gang are trying to escape and battling the bad guy's minions for space on the emergency elevator, this sluggish pace as each new emotion is formed on the actor's faces, is super aggravating. I haven't seen it enough times yet to appreciate its badness of all that, but I already love the way Chiba has to carefully fight with the monsters so as not rip their tissue paper-thin skin. And while he's suffering blow after blow in that pristine white hallway, the professor and Neal just stand there, for minutes on end, looking 'horrified.' Never thinking to help him or try to save their own lives. 

Though there are one too many unflattering close-ups of the sunglassed megalomaniacal gaijin master villain Dr. Moore (Erik Nielsen) and the snaggle-toothed assistant scientist Mike Daneen, there also many lovely close-ups of Chiba and Neal, whose blazing white form-fitting tunic and villain-regulation slacks hang on her just perfectly; beaming with vitality and poise, flipping her short bob of a blonde hairdo, she's a perfect gaijin counterpoint to Chiba, whose deep dark eyes can drown any unsuspecting viewer gazing into them too long (and we have plenty of opportunities). Shunsuke Kikuchi's memorably groovy score and the gorgeous evil lair lighting on Prime's flawless HD print makes experiencing TERROR BENEATH THE SEA fairly painless, just make sure you don't forget to bring your rock bottom expectations to keep you from floating away.... 
Il Pianeta degli uomini spenti / Translation: Planet of Extinct Men
(1961) Dir. Antonio Marghereti
**1/2 / Amazon Image - C- / D

There is a stand-alone version of this PD title on Prime (the "Comic Book Edition") but it's been so yellowed by someone's idea of color grading (for the old yellowed newsprint effect of old comics?) I find I prefer Prime's "Double Doses of Sci-fi: Hostile Planets and Doomsday" version (starting on the 0:17 mark - ending 1:22) It's a shoddy looking analog transfer clearly taken from a VHS tape but--as with the above Planet of Prehistoric Women--there is no good HD upgrade available. Take what you can get, and say thank you to the nice Prime.

Sort of the prequel to Margheriti's 1966-7 "Gamma One" Tetralogy (note its American title is Battle of the Worlds, and is not be confused his War Between the Planets or War of the Planets, both of which came later), here we have a runaway planet entering our solar system and taking up orbit around Earth, all predicted by an aged, vaguely portly Claude Rains in owl spectacles, hamming wildly but dubbing his own voice as a mathematics expect. Such a team player, he sells the dialogue like its Shakespeare and even wears a space helmet during the big alien planet-landing climax, racing around like a kid in a candy store through miles of alien tubing and red gel lights while issuing grating 'music of the spheres' from his portable synthesizer. (The alien UFOs are maneuvered via soundwaves, leading to lots of overlaid asynchronous tones as ships race into heavily-edited dogfights  Mixing Mycroft Holmes and Peter O'Toole doing Henry II, Raine's mathematician physicist is so brilliant he can just write an equation on the observatory floor in chalk for the world's leaders to see (via camera phones) and he initiates an interplanetary war. Meanwhile the young couples (a pair from a Martian outpost, and a pair from his own observatory) fawn and stand around in awe and then saddle up when it's time to ride out of orbit and take on "the Outsider" (as Raines dubs the interloping world). Mario Migliardi's score smoothes over any soft patches and helps to give the rocky island scenery a proto-giallo sense of class, though the barrage of synth noises in the second half may wake your sleeping girlfriend if you don't keep the volume low. Long a PD title, one can dream of seeing this one day remastered to look as good as the (above) War Between the Planets. What else is the stuffing of the stars, Professor, if not such dreams?

Operazione Goldman / Operation Goldman
(1966) Dir. Antonio Margheriti
*** / Amazon Image - A-

As with some other features on our list, above and below, we're still exploring the uninhabitable vastnesses and it's still a trip, man, and in this, a superior example of one of the countless spy movies that proliferated in the mid-60s (from Goldfinger and Thunderball), we get both rocket topplings and a trippy undersea lair powered by an undersea volcano. Figures it's from that inexhaustible mastro Antonio Margheriti, as it's got the same sense of spontaneous termite energy as his "Gamma One" films. Packed in amidst the quips, drinks, and car chases lurks some exciting footage of real-life Nasa rocket failures seamlessly interwoven with spy Anthony Eisley's staggering around in front of an ocean of fire. The rest of the time he's either being shot at by a lovely blonde (Wandisa Guida) or trying to score with his lovely handler, Captain Flanagan (Diana Lorys) in what's supposed to Florida but sure looks Mediterranean. Action highlights also include a long chase/brawl through a brewery from the loading docks all the way down the grain silos. And that underwater lair is a major trip. Mid-60s Bond imitations could be stodgy with endless travelogue footage, stripteases, comic relief, static plot-heavy dialogue, trite pick-up lines and fashions so dated and sexist you can smell the cheap cologne in the air even now, but Lightning Bolt is worth standing in the rain for. Riz Ortolani spy music is on-point and on-message throughout and the sublime HD prime print makes the old new again.

(PS Just don't let it convince you to try others in Prime's vast mid-60s European faux-Bond arsenal, most are incorrectly formatted, just for starters. Operation Kid Brother starring Neil Connery isn't bad, even if it has a shockingly imitative Morricone score.)

(1965) Dir. Robert Gaffney
**/ Amazon Image - A

Puerto Rico really needs your help right now, but Frankenstein Conquers the World isn't the reason, entirely. Sure, some fancy critics give FMTSP a bad rap and, sure, it's a little too self-aware of its Party Beach hotrod absurdity, but some of the scenes have same kinetic weird nouvelle-pulp energy we fist saw in Rollin's Viol du Vampire and Franco's Diabolical Dr. Z, while still staying as gosh-darn American as a NASA-sponsored apple pie (filmed in Puerto Rico!). The plot follows a pair of evil aliens--the bald pointy eared, vaguely Uncle Fester-meets-Jon Lovitz Dr. Nadir (Lou Cutell) and the aloof Princess Marcuzen (Marilyn Hanold)--as they abduct a bunch of bathing suit-and-cocktail poolside frolicking women to zap back to their home planet (their side has won a nuclear war but now is sterile). Threatening any resistors with their pet space monster, they're quite the hammy pair, milking every line like they're getting paid by the minute, but there's lovely black-and-white footage of driving past NASA's gates and a funny press conference with their newest astronaut, who--alas--freezes halfway through the Q&A - and so we find the secret: he's a robot! When his ship crashes (thanks to alien toppling powers), Frankie falls to earth a burnt amnesiac who proceeds to run amok until his creator (the great--always precise and deadpan--James Karen!) and his girlfriend (foxy Karen Grant) fix his circuitry and turn him around against the alien threat. You better believe the title match is coming as the space monster is warmed and readied. The military meanwhile, is on the way, too, but daren't attack while all the girls are inside the (parked) ship. Man, Puerto Rico seems like quite the spot! Never before has military footage from our Air Force and Army training maneuvers been so seamlessly interwoven with western poolside garage rock decadence! Those teens who first saw this funky gem at the drive-in probably thought they were dreaming. I know I am.  Cutell's Dr. Nadir makes Dudley Manlove's Eros in Plan Nine seem a model of deadpan cool; and scenes of him and Marcuzen examining the visibly uncomfortable swim suit models (from the Miss Puerto Rico contest!) veer close to icky; but once everything is sorted out, the ever-cool James Karen and his lady friend enjoy a free and easy moped ride through scenic sunny San Juan, set to the romantic sax and harmonies of pop group The Distant Cousins.

Now Come with me to Criterion Channel...!

Uch├╗ daikaij├╗ Girara
(1963) Dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu
*** / Criterion Channel Image - /C

With a happy astro-theme song and groovy lounge soundtrack (courtesy Taku Izumi), cheerful blue colored outer space backgrounds, and cute if unconvincing space miniatures and sets, X is set in that once-seemingly inevitable future of permanent bases on the moon, operated by a United World Order where young people of both genders hold high-level positions on orbiting space stations and meet after hours at the space lounge to dance and be interrupted by urgent news. Here we got cute blonde gaijin astrobiologist Lisa (Peggy Neal) as the girl in a group of four bound for Mars, stopping off on the moon to party with cute Michiko (Itoko Harada), whose got a crush on Capt. Sano (Shun'ya Wazaki), who crushes on Lisa (Neal) who likes him too but knows Michiko crushes so much harder. Franz Gruber sports a goatee as a high-ranking scientific advisor (he also counsels Lisa when hearts gets too heavy). Planetary danger erupts when Lisa collects a tiny alien spore she found stuck to the ship's tail fin and brings it down to earth in one of those sample jars that alien spores tend to escape from when everyone is off having cocktails. This one leaves a chicken size footprint etched in acid and immediately grows kaiju massive. Though joyful and triumphant, Guilala's attacks are a bit on the weaker side compared to his more esteemed Toho comrade, but with all the fun jetting back and forth from the moon to Earth to that swingin' pop score, the soap dish UFO visits, the widescreen medium shot compositions, the luminous glowing skin of the two lead actresses, and Guilala's aerodynamic head curling its edges when blasting laser spitballs, you may forgive the soft foggy print on the CC.

Grooving at the moon's astro-lounge
The Criterion image is soft but hey - if not for their "It came from Shochiku" Eclipse series, it wouldn't be out on anything but a $60 Japanese import. To think, I may never have known it. And as a result I wouldn't have gone on to hunt down and see Atragon and Latitude Zero on overpriced Tokyo Shock DVDs.  Man, I'm sick just thinking about it, because if there are cocktails being served on space stations or the moon in a 60s science fiction film, I shall be crawling forth, insatiable. There is no 'counting days' when there are no longer 'days' without Earth's gravitational spin. In space, no one can see you relapse!

(1972) Dir. Andre Tarkovsky
 **** / Criterion Image - B

Tarkovsky's acclaimed science fiction masterpiece (which seems like a 60s film, due perhaps to the slower pop trendshifting behind the Iron Curtain) is set in a future on space station orbiting above an all-ocean, possibly sentient, planet that's started causing long dead lovers to re-appear, out of nowhere, with amnesia. Based on a novel by Polish sci-fi novelist Stanislav Lem, it's slow, depressing, and long, yet never less than compelling. It's certainly no slower or less ponderous than its western counterpoint, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Less trippy, though, unless you turn up the volume and pay close attention to the sound mix. Once you let the slowness hypnotize you, which is what it's for, weird things start to happen. The long drive through Moscow's tunnels and elevated highways to the the airport for example, becomes otherworldly when you tune into the way the sound of the traffic begins to discombobulate into the rush of rockets and radio static; slow pans around rooms shiw Kris's (Donatas Bationis) dead ex-wife Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appearing in different points in time and space. I've seen it five times and only managed to stay awake to the end once. Any Big Message is entombed in its weird mise-en-scene of ever shifting memory. Tarkovsky refuses to bless us with a momentous narrative or some wild "Beyond Jupiter" light show climax, but with regularly mismatched glimpses of things both there and not there, he does evoke the bathroom/bedroom rebirthing scene of 2001... if stretched to three hours and included a girl, and a film projector...

Did I nod off?

But what better film to wake up to? It's long enough you can wake up from a sound nap to find it's still playing! If that happens to you, do as I did: just sit up and keep watching where you woke up from. To watch it in between bouts of consciousness, to blank out right in the middle of some portentous cosmic revelation, to come to alone with the screen in the engulfing silence of space, is this perhaps the ideal frame of mind fo Solaris? Nyet to whatever the answer is. Nyet.

Adieu to the cautious cocktails and radiation-eating hopes of the space age. Adios to swinging astronauts being hoisted around on wires while saving the day. Dasvidaniya to the idea of a perfect romance with a mystical anima projection in the form of an ex-wife at the prime of her hotness. Such is the realization of Tarkovsky's most surreal film. It takes ideas similar to those in many other older science fiction films (including Ib Melchoir's Journey to the Seventh Planet) and drafts a meaning so high and profound it can use swirls of algae on still water, wind-rustled plants, stormy clouds, trees hanging over empty space, and a beautifully knit autumnal-colored afghan wrap held against the glow of a round space station window, to evoke the inscrutable majesty of that alien otherness beyond even the reach of our sleeping unconscious, past the light behind the dark behind the man behind the curtain, that fractal form of probing consciousness we damage the minute we behold it the way water crystalks change just from our looking at them. Such things lie far beyond the limits of special effects, and even human imagination, to interpret in any concrete form.

So we bid farewell even to the most.... basic.... functions...zzz

 (If you refuse to watch SOLARIS, let the tenth film on this list be Criterion's DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968- Dir. Ishoro Honda) Yeah, boy, Akira Ifukube's pounding score, female aliens (above) turning into rocks, and a full roster of kaiju favorites uniting to really stomp the shit out of Ghidorah. I mean it's like six against one, and they basically curb stomp the poor thing. It's not like he came there voluntarily! He was controlled by the Kilaaks, same as they all were hitherto the signal being broken! Get Criterion channel now!! I also recommend GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964), also on Criterion, which has a cool alien possessed princess side plot, and the numbers are much more even --since Ghidorah counts as three monsters at least... because of his three heads.

For other cool Communist sci-fi films from the 70s that seem like they're from our 60s, I highly recommend these two films from East Germany (avail. only in OOP DVD and sometimes youtube)

Im Staub der Sterne
(1978) Dir. 
*** / DVD image - B-


  1. What about my childhood fave, Wild, Wild Planet?

    1. That's not on Prime so I didn't include it. I'm working on a big feature re- all the "Gamma One" movies and spin-offs, so stay tuned!

  2. Great commentary as always. One quibble - Stanislaw Lem was Polish.


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