Euro horror is well represented on DVD, but the interesting science fiction films from the Soviet bloc countries have yet to make the leap onto the new medium. That leaves a score of legendary Russian space movies and an equal number of Czechoslovakian fantasies unseen in their original languages. The East German - Polish Die Schweigende Stern is one of the few available, and that's only in Region 2 PAL format.
But several Soviet space fantasies were acquired by American companies and re-cut, re-dubbed and re-titled for Western markets. This Retromedia disc offers a good transfer of the American version of a serious Soviet film about the space race, co-billed with a cheap Italian space opera that was reissued twelve years after its original Italian release, probably because of the popularity of Star Wars.
Battle Beyond the Sun (1962) is an elaborate butchering of a Russian film called Nebo zoyvot (1960) and one of Francis Ford Coppola's earliest screen credits. While gadding about Europe producing movies on a shoestring, Roger Corman picked up the rights to several unsold European genre pictures, including what looks to have been a sober and moralistic movie about the need for cooperation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.. The Russian rocket Potemkin aborts its Mars mission to rescue two foolish Americans from their craft Typhoon, after they unsuccessfully attempt to beat the Russkies to the red planet.
The American version changes the story, disguising the film's Russian origin and sidestepping specific mention of the space race, which at the time was practically a public relations adjunct to the Cold War. Remember all those movies where getting into space first was essential, to claim the orbital high ground for 'defensive' atomic missiles? That was no joke.
To rework Nebo zovyot into a film ideologically safe for American children, Corman acolyte Coppola removed all topical references by setting the action in 1997, after a nuclear war. The world is now divided into North Hemis and South Hemis, regions that carry on a familiar technological competition. The previously American rocket Typhoon is now the property of the arrogant and deceitful North Hemis bloc. By pasting optical 'patches' over many shots of the Russian rocket Potemkin, it becomes the Mercury, the Mars craft of the humanistic and compassionate spacemen from South Hemis. Only in a couple of shots does the old name poke through, followed by the telltale letters "CCCP." However, Soviet stars are still visible on the rocket's fins.
This allows Coppola to make the North Hemis astronauts into sniveling glory hogs who must be rescued by the gentle and wise scientists from South Hemis. After helping the castaways escape from the derelict Typhoon, all four astronauts land the Mercury on a moon of Mars.
Battle Beyond the Sun must have run up a substantial optical bill. Besides the fake patches to cover up insignia on the rockets, many takeoffs and other shots are duplicated to up the ratio of outer space footage. This also means that a shot of the wrong kind of rocket is re-purposed now and then. To give the marketing people a monster to splash across posters, Coppola also shot new footage of gooey, tentacled hand puppets that look like slightly obscene sea urchins. A single shot of an astronaut reacting to some (now unseen) threat is repeated and inter-cut with the monster battle.
The Russian visual effects are excellent for their year, with interesting designs for the orbital space station and clever mattes. Acting and direction are merely functional but there are good details like the space station's botanical garden to generate oxygen, and a tense meeting of opposing scientists that is almost identical to the stiff interaction seen in Kubrick's later 2001: A Space Odyssey. Naturally, the 'Russian' side is open and friendly, while the 'Americans' are sneaky and dishonest. The original makers of Nebo zovyot (which translates as "The Heavens Call") must have been dismayed to see their movie and its message twisted into a kiddie flick about giant space blobs on a Martian Moon.
Co-feature Star Pilot (Italy 1965, UA 1977) is no lost gem but instead a flaky rehash of It Came From Outer Space combined with a spy movie and a poor Flash Gordon-style space fantasy. Originally called 2+5: Missione Hydra, it concerns a downed alien spacecraft commanded by a female named Phena. She wears exaggerated mid-sixties eye makeup and revealingly tacky spaced-out fashions. Phena kidnaps a handful of Earth scientists to fix her spaceship, and also takes along some sinister Asian spies who thought the buried Hydran ship was a Western secret weapon. We can tell the film was dubbed after Nixon's Sino-American detente, because the evil spies insist they're not from China.
Phena's ship looks like a clunky coffee pot with rockets. As in This Island Earth, she intends to take her captives back to her home planet of Hydra for experimental purposes. But Phena soon develops a yen for one of the Earthmen, while the scientist's ditzy daughter Luisa (Leontine May) works up a crush for a stoic Hydran officer (Kirk Morris). The endless outer space episodes include the investigation of a derelict spacecraft and several tedious, phony karate fights. For a big surprise finish the space travelers discover that both Earth and Hydra have been wiped out by similar nuclear disasters; the limp ending prefigures that of Planet of the Apes.
Star Pilot looks even tackier than Antonio Margheriti's series of space sagas, with sloppy camera work, painfully awful costumes and poorly designed effects. Generous stock shots from Toho's Gorath show up for additional scenes of spaceships and tidal waves that don't integrate well with the main footage. Top billed Gordon Mitchell appears for less than twenty seconds, glaring at us on a view-screen from the planet Hydra. The film is so disjointed, it's possible that it began as an Italian TV series, as did Margheriti's Wild, Wild Planet. Director Pietro Francisci was the man behind the successful Hercules movies, and this is quite a step down for him.
Retromedia's Science Fiction Double Bill of Battle Beyond the Sun and Star Pilot is the best disc I've seen from the company. The digital encoding is good and the slightly faded colors and grain in the images all seems to be from the transfer prints used. The tight cropping in both films surely came from the sources as well, which are basically intact and in good shape. The only extra is a trailer for Battle that uses alternate takes of the laughably gross Martian monsters, printed much more brightly and looking all the more fake for it. Battle Beyond the Sun remains a fascinating memento of the Cold War.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviewed: November 12, 2004