Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Aelita: Queen of Mars
As a silent film released in 1924, this movie is kind of out of bounds for a blog focusing on 50s and 60s sci-fi movies. It's also Soviet silent film, so it's pretty obscure to the average sci-fi fan. Nonetheless, it's significant as an early foundation for sci-fi. It predates Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and all those Flash Gordon serials of the 30s.
The movie is only loosely based on Aleksei Tolstoy's 1923 novel: Aelita. The book is much more like an HG Wells tale, though more romantic. The movie adaptation is more blatantly a pro-socialst propaganda piece, but still interesting even for that.
Most of the movie's "action" (such as it is) takes place in Moscow shortly after the Revolution. Action on Mars doesn't take place until the last quarter of the film. Those martian scenes, however, are worth the wait. Grand scale, bold sets done in a mechanistic constructivist style are impressive. The martians are humans, naturally, but their costumes are also wild constructivist creations of metal and acrylic. While the convoluted plot with many characters will annoy a lot of modern viewers (who want quick paced action), this early view of what an alien world's culture would be like, is worth the wait.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Loss is an engineer in post-Revolutionary Russia. He gets a mysterious message he's sure came from Mars. Through a complex set of plot twists (which I won't go into here), Loss decides to fly to Mars in a "ship" he's been building. The king of Mars: Tuskub, orders the earthlings to be "terminated" when they land. Aelita, who has developed a fascination/crush on Loss (whom she's been watching with a special telescope) pleads that they be spared. The earthlings are caught and thrown into the work caves along with the oppressed martian working classes. The earthlings incite the workers to revolt. Aelita volunteers to lead the revolt. When Tuskub and the others are killed, she orders the army to turn on the rebels. Loss, enraged at the treachery, pushes Aelita off a steep wall. But, it all turns out to be a daydream. All ends well, more or less, in Loss's complicated life.
Why is this movie fun?
The sets for Mars, and the costumes, are amazing. The director was working hard to make his Mars as "modern" and other-worldly as he could imagine. In 1920s Russia, Constructivism was as modern as anyone could imagine. Think of these martians and the martian cityscape as the start of how future movie-makers would visualize alien worlds. Flash Gordon's nemesis, Ming the Merciless, and his planet Mongo would be cheap and feeble copies of Aelita's Mars.
Cold War Angle
Well, 1924 is far too early for the Cold War era, and in fact, Aelita is viewing from the other side. We get a soviet point of view. They take the struggle of workers against oppression into space.
Like a great deal of science fiction, Aelita uses an alien world and alien culture as a spotlight on something about earthly life. Where 50s sci-fi often used hostile or invading aliens as an abstraction for worries about communists invading America, Tolstoy's Aelita story lets a handful of Russians replay the struggle of socialist workers against an oppressive monarchy. The Tsar was long since dead and the Revolution "won," but king Tuskub's worker-oppresive regime lets The Revolution be retold.
On the one hand, there's a sort of future-thinking optimism underlying Aelita. The Revolution becomes a universal (and successful) struggle. On the other hand, Aelita exposes a sort of stuck-in-the-old-world mentality where the Tsar's Russia is imagined to be everywhere. Where many sci-fi tales romanticized alien cultures as highly advanced and better than our own (such as in The Day the Earth Stood Still, etc.) or highly advanced and deadly (War of the Worlds). In Aelita, the martians are an old-style monarchy.
If you're a sci-fi movie fan, and can find a copy of Aelita, it's worth a watch for the ancestry of the genre. Since it's a Russian story, and the Russians seem to like long stories with lots of characters and complex plot machinations, it's not unusual for a viewer to get lost. Check the comments line. The first comment is my character and plot primer if you got lost.