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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.

1 comment:

Nightowl said...

Characters and plot machinations in Aelita:

Loss, the engineer and designer of the space ship
Natasha, wife of Loss
Spiridnov, Loss's friend and fellow engineer
Ehrlich, former bourgeoisie playboy, now minor soviet official
Yelena, wife of Ehrlich
Gussev, demobilized soviet soldier, revolutionary idealist
Masha, nurse, Gussev's fiance
Kravtsov, bumbling amateur slueth

Aelita, queen of Mars, (daughter of Tuskub, in the novel)
Tuskub, king of Mars
Gor, keeper of the power
IIhoshka, Aelita's maid

The sub-plots:
Spiridnov used to be keen on Yelena years ago. She's married to Ehrlich now, but she and Ehrlich agree to keep their marriage a secret so Yelena can get Spiridnov to buy her expensive gifts. Ehrlich misses the high-life. Conning Spiridnov is a source of funds.
Ehrlich, meanwhile, pretending to be single, flirts and sucks up to Natasha with rather the same intent. Natasha supervises a "checkpoint" so has some authority over rationed goods. Ehrlich uses his ingratiation to steal a couple bags of sugar, which he can sell on the black market.
Loss is forever catching glimpses of Ehrlich fawning over Natasha, and seeing her apparent acceptance. He never sees her refusals or polite rebuffs, so Loss gets so jealous that he shoots Natasha -- and thinks he's killed her. That's why he flees to Mars.
When Ehrlich has drained Spiridnov of his hidden stash of wealth, he kills him (all off stage, but understood). The upper soviet officials want to investigate the missing sugar, but are too busy with other cases. The amateur (and comic relief character) Kravtsov takes it upon himself to investigate.
Kravtsov suspects Spiridnov, all the more because he had gone missing -- just like the sugar. Loss, despondent over having killed his wife, and certain that he would be identified as her killer, dresses up as Spiridnov in order to view Natasha's body at the funeral home. Kravtsov sees him and follows him to the warehouse containing the rocketship.
Gussev, a friend of Loss, agrees to go to Mars with him, for the adventure. Loss is fleeing the scene. Kravtsov stows away on the space ship, not knowing that's what it is. The three of them then go to Mars.

On Mars:
Tuskub's astronomers tell him of the earthlings coming. Tuskub orders them "terminated". Aelita, has been flirting with Gor, keeper of the power and a special telescope, had become secretly infatuated with Loss. Aelita pleads for the safety of the earthlings. Tuskub refuses.
Awhile later, the chief astronomer comes to Aelita, alone, saying that he knows exactly when and where the earth ship will land. She has her maid stab/kill the astronomer. Thus, the earthlings land safely and are taken by Aelita's maid to her chambers. Aelita wants Loss to rule Mars with her (though Tuskub is really the guy in charge).
Aelita's maid, Ihoshka, is arrested for the murder of the astronomer and thrown into the work caves where the oppressed working class are enslaved. Gussev, keen on Ihoshka, follows her into the caves.
Loss is keen on Aelita, confusing his feelings for her with his feelings for Natasha. (this is why the somewhat confusing scenes in which Natasha appears in place of Aelita). Loss and Aelita are "caught" being romantic by Tuskub. Unexplained in the movie, but in the book, Aelita was "sanctified" -- set apart as a forever virgin, never to know love. For her, to love was treason. Loss and Aelita too, are thrown into the work caves.

Gussev, outraged at the workers' plight, incites them to revolt. Aelita offers to lead them in revolt. Gussev is suspicious of queens aiding revolutions, but Loss is also infatuated with Aelita, so glosses over it.
The workers succeed in overthrowing Tuskub and his ruling council. The army sides with the workers, led by the queen. Aelita whispers to the captain of the guard to open fire on the rebels. She plans to rule Mars alone. Loss, Gussev and the workers revolt was just a means to her goal. Outraged, Loss kills Aelita -- again confusing his feelings for Natasha in the act. He 'replays' his killing of Natasha, in killing Aelita.

Back on Earth:
We don't see how they get back to earth. Instead, we find Loss standing at the train station. It was all a daydream. He goes home to Natasha, who was not dead. He shot at her, but missed. Even the shifty Ehrlich is arrested for the death of Spiridnov. Justice prevails. All is well. The workers have triumphed over oppressive monarchs yet again.