Saturday, May 30, 2009

Random Movie Report #65: Battle Beyond the Sun

Poster and Amazon Link
I honestly had a good reason for buying this one. I own the poster. I got it years ago from a booth in a mall where a guy was selling a bunch of sci-fi/horror memorabilia, and anyway, I had this thing for years without ever having seen the film it was based on. BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN is actually an interesting obscurity in a couple of ways. One, it’s a cut-down version of a hugely ambitious Russian space epic that still bears faint traces of Soviet politics. Two, the American edit was supervised by none other than Francis Ford Coppola. In its re-arranged form it’s a brief, almost slight science fiction adventure, but the central theme of scientific idealism and cooperation holds, and it’s still kind of impressively made, despite some questionable additions.

In the future of 1997, after an atomic war, the world has been split up between the major powers of North and South Hemis. Both empires are planning expeditions to the planet Mars in secret, and we follow the team from South Hemis (which, according to the map, just happens to contain most of Russia), led by a kindly, brilliant old doctor with a plain peasant wife. The crew is first shuttled from Earth to an orbiting space station, where the Mars craft, the Nebula, has been built. While they’re waiting, though, a North Hemis craft docks for emergency repairs, and it turns out to be their own Mars craft. When the North Hemis expedition runs into trouble, the South Hemis scientists must decide between the success of their own mission and helping their fellow explorers. Okay, you can imagine what the decision is, but it leads to further surprises and complications.

Though this is an obscure film released thusfar only on a “budget” DVD, BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN was a big production for Mosfilm at the time, and despite poor picture quality it’s easy to see how. The miniature work is very elaborate and impressive, with some interesting use of mattes as well, and the orbiting space platform is particularly gorgeous. The original film was made in 1960, and this is about as good as pre-Kubrickian spaceflight scenes would get. There’s a strong atmosphere throughout, with repetitive but evocative music.

The American cut of this film anglicizes all the names (even in the credits) and leaves only a credit to Mosfilm as any indication that this was a Russian production, but knowing that now it’s interesting to see the subtext. The North Hemis characters are clearly Americans, and as such impulsive and misguided, but the film’s compassionate enough not to make them into out and out villains. There really aren’t any such things in the film, if you don’t count the space monsters.

Oh, right, the space monsters. These were also a late addition, crudely grafted onto the film’s third act (though it’s not clear what was supposed to have originally happened in the part of the movie.) And... the poster art may not make this terribly clear, but these are the most Freudian creatures ever not created by H. R. Giger. One is tall, one is round, and when they get into a fight the outcome is outright pornographic. There’s no way the U.S. team didn’t know what they were doing when they filmed this, and precious little way I can imagine them not falling over laughing while doing so. I’m not sure why you’d go this route, but for better or worse the monster scenes are a very short part of the movie.

Though this is clearly a greatly compromised version of whatever the Russians originally shot, and suffers from a choppy pace at times, I have to say its charm won me over. It’s pretty, optimistic, and doesn’t condescend to its audience. The DVD itself is not terribly good, and the original version of the film has yet to be made available, but in its mutant form it’s still worth your time.

Written by Mikhail Karzhukov, Yevgeni Pomeshchikov, and Aleksei Sazanov
Directed by Mikhail Karzhukov and Aleksandr Kozyr, and “Thomas Colchart” (Francis Ford Coppola)

Grade: B

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