St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

A Soviet Martian Double Feature

A Dream Come True (1963) and Mars (1968)

The Russians have always been innovators in the field of science-fiction films. The Soviet film Aelita (1924) is one of the earliest feature-length science-fiction films, predating the much better-known Metropolis (1927) by three years. Planeta Bur (1962) directed by Pavel Klushantsev has become acclaimed for its pioneering special effects, some of which Stanley Kubrick would subsequently re-invent for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). While their written science-fiction is often dark, interior, and laced with subtle social criticism, their science-fiction films serve a different purpose. Film-making in Russia had to be rubber-stamped by the Soviet administration, with the result that Aelita and Planeta Bur are both thinly disguised propaganda films about the triumph of Russian workers and industry. Even the utopian visions where all nations work together will often have a bumbling American character who is treated like a retarded cousin — the Russians let him share in the glory of space travel, but everyone knows he’s a bit simple.

This week’s movie night with Parker was a depressingly competent The Wrong Roommate (2016) by David DeCoteau. With nothing else to write about I’m cracking open a DVD I bought that contains a double-bill of Soviet science-fiction at the height of the space race — A Dream Come True (1963) and Mars (1968), both set on the red planet. These sorts of propaganda films naturally evaporated overnight after the Americans beat the Russians to the Moon and the Russians were suddenly like, “We never wanted to go to the Moon. What Moon? We don’t know what you’re talking about.” I always find these movies fascinating because of the brief window of time when they were made, the ingenuity the directors were forced to rely on without big American budgets, and the politics they were obliged to reflect.

A Dream Come True

A Dream Come True title card.

A Dream Come True comes laced with heavy narration, which gives this the feel of a documentary even though we’re watching a work of fiction. It also comes with these German opening credits, which suggests this film might come to us via a German print or something. Maybe via East Germany? Beats me. The DVD cover is pretty ghetto, so it’s not going to be much help.

Also, although this movie has subtitles, they are burned into the film so I couldn’t switch them off for the purpose of getting some screenshots. But maybe then you’ll see that I’m really not making up just how nutty some of this script really is.

Two men playing chess in the park.
“He is a joker and chess player. Never failed in playing chess to his friend Andrey.”

I know exactly his type. Smug bastard, always flaunting his captured pieces in his opponent’s face. I’ve been trying to get better at chess and the computer still beats me every time, even on easy mode, and don’t think for a second that I can’t detect the whirring of its smug little fan or the way the pixels visibly gloat. Piece of shit computer, I’ll show you.

*flips table*

A woman sitting on the beach.
“Cosmonauts and dreamers say that apple trees will be in flower on Mars.”

They most certainly do not.

Some aliens staring into a starry globe.
“I became a friend of far stars, don’t worry about me and don’t be sad.”

While the Earth people are dicking around on the beach and listening to factually questionable songs about Mars, some distant aliens are listening to the same song and probably figuring that we’re all a bit touched. The effects and composition here are really nice, though — this movie has some very pretty shots.

Three men in a cafeteria.
“I flew to the Moon, and you will fly to Mars.”
“There’s lack of water on Mars. No cocktails at all.”

No cocktails, but there’s plenty of fucking apple trees apparently.

A man in a Soviet spacesuit.

Here’s where that great Soviet design work kicks in. We have some truly wonderful cosmonaut spacesuits and banks of computers. Retro-futuristic design could sometimes go horribly wrong (I remember enough 1960s Doctor Who stories with incredibly cheap spacesuits), but sometimes it was a triumph. I love the design work in this movie.

Two cosmonauts silhouetted against Mars.

See? This is beautiful. Two Earth cosmonauts have landed on Phobos, one of Mars’ moons, where they have located a crashed alien spaceship. As they make their way to the spaceship, they are silhouetted against the Marsrise.

Three figures in a dark spaceship.

Here the two cosmonauts discover an alien survivor in the crashed ship.

An alien woman on a big public screen.

And, having brought her back to Earth, they display the alien woman in public like King Kong. She looks incredibly ungrateful for being shanghaied back to a strange planet and made to perform on endless reality TV shows like “I’m an Alien… Get Me Out of Here!”, or “The Dating Game” (hint, she’s the woman with tentacles for genitalia).

The Skinny

The plot of this movie is unmentionably stupid and, spoiler alert, at the end of the movie it turns out to have been a dream the whole time. So I literally just watched nothing happen for an entire hour. However I think you can see that this one is well worth it for some beautiful cinematography and design work. As I predicted there’s an English-named scientist called Dr. Laungton who insists the aliens will be warlike and the Russians rub it in when the aliens wind up being peaceful, so I guess that’s the stab at Americans. This was boring but beautiful, so definitely an interesting watch.


Mars title card.

Mars is directed by the same Pavel Klushantsev who was responsible for Planeta Bur and its special effects, so although A Dream Come True is this DVD’s A-side, I’m more excited to revisit Klushantsev. I have already seen Mars, but the copies of Klushantsev’s work that crop up on the Internet tend to be low quality, low resolution, and lacking English subtitles. I don’t usually mind the lack of subtitles because the dialogue in these movies is so bad anyway, but it’s a crying shame that such beautiful special effects work can only be seen in crappy transfers kicking around old filesharing platforms like eDonkey.

Unfortunately this DVD seems to have been sourced from an even worse place than the ancient AVI copy I have. You can see from the title card alone that it’s got noticeable pixellation and a watermark that, say, this copy on YouTube does not seem to have. However they all look to be sourced from the same print originally because they’re all too dark and have the same scratches so without a better print and some restoration work this movie just won’t look as good as it should. As it happens I know a pristine print exists because they use clips from this movie in a documentary about Klushantsev called The Star Dreamer (2002) where this movie is made to look stunning. I hope one day that gets a good release because it would be well worth it.

I’d still say this DVD is worthwhile, though, because it’s the only copy of Mars that I’ve found with subtitles. Again, they’re burned in, but at least you can understand what they’re saying now.

A diagram of an air balloon on Mars.

Whereas A Dream Come True was fiction with documentary elements, Mars is a documentary with fictional elements. The movie is only fifty minutes long, but the forty minutes are taken up with a lesson on the atmosphere of Mars, whether it has water, etc.

A cartoon of a watering can.
A cartoon of Martian plants.

Turns out Mars does have water, and it looks like this. In one of many inaccurate predictions presented as firm conclusions, Klushantsev tells us that there is definitely plant life on Mars and that it’s responsible for the shadowy parts of the planet.

An illustration of the canals of Mars.

And canals, which I believe was long ago debunked as an optical illusion, although to be fair contemporaneous Americans were also very married to the canal theory so the Soviets aren’t an outlier here.

Some kinda wacky robot.

Then they send this wacky guy to take samples, but he misses all the good stuff and points his camera away from all the vegetation. That’s what happens when you send a Mars rover designed by Scooby Doo.

A dog in a space suit.

As we get into the last ten minutes of the film, we start getting that good ol’ Klushantsev magic, which is what we’re all here for. Klushantsev starts to imagine what the surface of Mars might be like if all his predictions are depicted. Here a “canine cosmonaut” goes exploring on the surface of the red planet.

Lush, alien vegetation.

The vegetation on Mars is very lush this time of year. See, I bet this looked bomb on the original film print. I get the impression this would have been a glorious, colourful vista that’s been sadly washed out and etiolated.

An alien city.

As Klushantsev starts to ramp up the science-fiction aspects of his hypotheses, we get this glittering panorama of an alien city just waiting to be discovered by our cosmonauts.

A man and his dog watch the sun rise on Mars.

And, in the famous final shot of the film, a man and his dog stand on the surface of Mars and watch the sun come up. It’s criminal that this looks so poor compared to how it’s supposed to look, so I’m going to cheat a little and show you the same shot from the pristine print used in The Star Dreamer:

A man and his dog watch the sun rise on Mars.

The Skinny

This one is boring and laughably out of date, but it’s worthwhile for the subtitles and, if you can use your imagination, for the last ten minutes. The depiction of the surface of Mars is shot beautifully and has a genuinely uncanny, awe-inspiring feel to it. While I would love to see this released/restored properly one day, you might enjoy the special effects work a bit more in one of Klushantsev’s feature films like Planeta Bur which holds up a lot better than Mars does and is much more readily available.