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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Planeta Bur

It is not normally within the scope of this study to review foreign sci-fi flims when released in their native country. Typically, I've waited until the english-dubbed version was released in America. However, since Planeta Bur (PB) which translates to "Planet of Storms" became the basis for two later American re-edit releases, so a benchmark seemed appropriate. This was exactly the same process by which Nebo Zovyot ('59) became Battle Beyond the Sun ('62) and would happen to more foreign sci-fi in the 60s. It almost forms a sub-genre of its own. PB is interesting in its own right, for how the sober "hard" sci-fi of Nebo Zovyot had given way to a much more western flavor of sci-fi with monsters, aliens and alien civilizations.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Three ships are on their way from earth to Venus. The Cappella is struck by the obligatory meteorite and destroyed. The remaining two ships, the Sirius and Vega continue on, but the planned mission required three ships. The Arktur is being sent from Earth, but won't arrive for 2 months. The cosmonauts aboard Sirius and Vega decide that some sort of landing and exploration is better than waiting. Ivan and Kern go down from Vega in the glider, leaving Masha in orbit. They must land in a swamp, then all contact is lost. The Sirius lands somewhat nearby and the three-man crew set out in a Jetson's-ike hovercar to find them. During their travels they hear an eerie woman's song in the distance, and encounter prehistoric beasts both benign and threatening. Ivan and Kern, meanwhile, have fought off some man-sized t-rex beasts and are headed to meet the men of Sirius. Ivan and Kern become weak with fever. Their robot, John, stands watch. The Sirius crew had to submerge the hovercar to escape a pterodactyl. In doing so, they discover what might have been an ancient city, submerged like Atlantis. Once on dry land, the Sirius crew contact John and tell him to administer an anti-fever drug. Ivan and Kern recover just as a volcano sends down rivers of lava. They order John to carry them across, but he malfunctions half way there. The hovercar shows up just in time to rescue them. John is lost to the lava. All five return to Sirius, but worry that Masha had landed the Vega somewhere, stranding them all. An earthquake and flood from rain undermine the Sirius, so they must take off immediately. Alexey discovers that his odd triangular rock is really a sculpture of a woman's face. There was humanoid life on Venus after all. They blast off and find that Masha remained in orbit. They're headed home. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The big budget meant some pretty impressive props for 1962. The story line is pretty vast with ample unexplored tangents. The result makes PB something like the soviet Forbidden Planet.

Cold War Angle
There is little of the usual Cold War elements in PB. It amounts to more a space adventure with some wide-eyed anticipation of what space might hold in store. There is little of the soviet chest thumping that Nebo Zovyot had.

Old-Think: Planetary Evolution -- PB builds upon the old (and since abandoned) notion that the solar system evolved from outer to inner. Planets further out from the sun were presumed to have formed and developed sooner, and therefore been hospitable for life earlier. Planets further in would be at "younger" stages of evolution. By this old theory, Mars cooled and developed first, so was more ancient. It had life and civilization before earth did. By the time earth's civilization "evolved," Mars was dying out (even H.G. Wells presumed this order of things back in the late 1800s, as the premise for why the Martians wanted to invae earth.) Earth was in its prime. Venus was therefore presumed to be at some early stage of evolution, like earth had been millions of years ago. Hence the dinosaurs. It was a pretty theory, but like many evolution theories, made a better mental model than it did real science.

Emancipated Machines -- An intriguing little bit within PB, is that the robot John is not a mere servant, as robots often are in film. He must be spoken to politely, or will refuse to hear the commands. When Roman asks John where his "masters" are, John snips back that slavery is outlawed by the constitution. He has no masters, he is a free-thinking robot. Roman has rephrase his question before he gets an answer. In the lava stream, John's self-preservation programing has him trying to toss Kern off his back so he (John) can escape the lava. Unlike Asimov's 3-rules types of robots, John was quite willing to kill one of his crew-mates in order to survive -- an interestingly cold-hearted view of mechanical man.

Robby-ski -- Not since Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet ('56) and Invisible Boy ('58) ) had a robot been a more-or-less equal member of the cast. (The robot in Colossus of New York ('58) had a human brain). John is very much made in the Robby mold. If he hadn't melted in the lava, he had enough charm to go into sequels too, as the Soviet Robby. But alas...

Car of the Future -- A fascinating bit of eye candy is the cosmonauts' hover car. With its bubble canopy, fins and jet-like scoops, it is a terrific example of what people of the late 50s, early 60s thought the car of the future would look like. In the photos, "A" is the hover car from Planeta Bur. "B" is the Ford Atmos, 1955. "C" is unnamed, but looks like the inspiration for the '59 Cadillac. "D" is the Firebird III, 1958. This is what people in the late 50s, very early 60s thought we'd all be driving in the year 1985.

The hover car looked very cool, but unfortunately, much of its "hovering" travel did not work as well. Cantilevered on a hidden arm, that traveled along a concealed track, the car tended to wobble and bounce awkwardly. There are a few scenes in which the car's travel better matches it's looks, such as racing through the burning forest, and near the end when a cushion of smoke hides the supports. The producers got as much mileage as they could (pun intended) from that expensive prop. It has almost as much screen time as the actors.

Torn In Space -- A curious subplot involves the female crewmember: Masha. She and Ivan are romantically involved, but she is ordered to remain in orbit. During some protracted loss of contact, Masha agonizes about what to do. Folow orders, or follow her heart? Remain in orbit as ordered? Land the Vega in an attempt to help poor Ivan out of whatever trouble he's in. Her inner struggle with duty vs. desire seems like a sort of commentary on the fitness of women for exploration. The men eagerly face dangers and decide quickly. They are motivated by bravery, patriotism and science. She is motivated by emotion, incapable of making a big decision and worried about being subordinate. A curious snapshot.

Bottom line? The action is a bit thin and at times talky, so modern viewers accustomed to laser battles and frequent explosions, will find PB hokey However, the english-subtitled version of PB is well worth watching for fans of 50s sci-fi. It can make a great study in the recycled sub-genre as the first feature, followed by Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and then Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, both of which used much PB footage.

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