Soviet Sci-fi Film and Different Modalities of Future Ecosystems

Author: Natalija Majsova

Exploring the intersections of ecology and Soviet science fiction cinema, and their local and international reverberations, cultural studies scholar Natalija Majsova introduces the genealogical particularities of Soviet sci-fi film and the evolution of its thematic preoccupations, such as spaceflight and space exploration.


A new world becoming

Soviet science fiction cinema has a very particular genealogy. Due to the temporal proximity of the emergence of the Soviet state project and of the cinematic medium—a means of surveillance and observation, of propaganda and education, of experiment and reiteration, in short, of monstration and narration of a new world-to-be—science fiction film cannot be considered as mere fantasy, symptom, or flight of fancy. Rather, film is simultaneously a dimension, a perspective, and a voice. The genre of science fiction, on the other hand, played a palette of different functions in Soviet history, from the normatively prognostic and mnemonic, to the revelatory and introspective.

The notorious “first Soviet SF blockbuster”—the famous 1924 production Aelita, directed by “bourgeois” director Yakov Protazanov—was released toward the end of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, and in the twilight of revolutionary heteroglossia which had marked Russian and Soviet cultural production in the 1910s and early 1920s, accompanied by a privately funded thirst for knowledge which had shaped the first, early period of Soviet cosmic enthusiasm. Aelita, deemed ideologically inappropriate by Soviet critics while being appreciated as well-made by their Western counterparts (cf. Ignatenko 2014), set out several important paradoxes which would mark Soviet science fiction films for decades to come.

Still from Aelita (1924), directed by Yakov Protazanov.

Protazanov’s film, which was about a dream that an engineer has about a botched, hijacked workers’ revolution on Mars, provided important social commentary in two important ways: as mnemonics and as prognosis. Aelita—which oscillates between post-revolutionary Moscow, a world-in-becoming, a world-in-flux, and rigid, black-and-white Martian society plagued by a tyrant and collectively incapable of spiritual transformation—monumentalized the October Revolution. At the same time, it openly ridiculed attempts to subject it to one mandatory, final interpretation. This two-bladed quality would characterize Soviet science fiction cinema until the perestroika of the mid-1980s, when science fiction would finally lose its normative anchor, for better and for worse.

Moreover, the world of Aelita prophetically delineated the limits of the possible future world by aligning it with its human subjects. It depicted a new world becoming in a new Moscow, a city growing together with its new inhabitants, from orphans with no history to adults with their various vices and qualities, each negotiating a new world, alone and in their social interactions. The film also stressed the incapacity for change in a rigid, static Martian world, clearly granting preference to Moscow for all its bourgeois anachronisms such as individual pettiness and melodrama.

Still from Aelita (1924), directed by Yakov Protazanov.

In fact, later productions highlight this aspect of world-building as one of the major stakes in Soviet science fiction cinema. A world never develops independently of its subjects and their interactions; and the subjects of Soviet science fiction, up until the 1980s, were typically individuals and collectives who not only strived, but developed—or already had been developed not for, but together with, a better, socialist future. In short, this future entailed as much of a transformation of the material conditions of life as a transformation of the subjects’ hearts. This is to say that humanity, individuals, and the world around them were seen as complementary cogs in the machine, particularly insofar as Soviet science fiction tacitly or explicitly adhered to the recommendations of Stalinist socialist realism, the Soviet artistic canon that had shaped cultural production from the 1930s until the 1950s; the recommendation that art should represent the communist future as if it had already happened. For better and for worse, science fiction filmmakers might have added to that.


Monumental visions of the future under Stalinism

The Stalinist imperative displaced an earlier, vanguard entropy of visions of a better, collective future, advanced by local artists and designers—as well as the media—in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The consolidation of visions of the future under Stalinism, and, in the sphere of cultural production, under the postulates of socialist realism, had far-reaching consequences for film production in general and for the genre of science fiction in particular. A set of specific objectives had been set before the film industry: to motivate the masses, to educate them regarding socialism in form and content, to prophesize the future, and to memorialize the early feats of the revolution and the new Soviet state. Important debates arose around these foci, including about the form of Soviet cinema (for example, should theme-based screenplays displace narrative-based ones?), its organization (e.g. how should the state’s film industry be organized in terms of its geography, the specialization of particular studios, and distribution channels?), and its priorities in terms of preferred genres and topics. Fantasy was not on the top of this last list; it was considered suspicious on accounts of its reliance on the free flight of the imagination, uninhibited by ideological motives and other bourgeois inclinations such as melodramatic twists.

In literature, science fiction under Stalin is chiefly associated with the so-called “near-reach” formula, i.e. narratives that celebrate the graspable, realistic feats of contemporary science. An important undercurrent of such science fiction, or rather “scientific fantasy” (nauchnaia fantastika), that was characteristic of Soviet science fiction films until the late 1960s remains its clear political statement: Soviet authority is associated with scientific progress and righteous goals, whereas scientific progress outside of the Soviet state is linked to heartless imperialism and colonialism.


Nature waiting to be tamed

Poster of Napoleon-Gas (1925), directed by Semen Timoshenko.

Nature and ecology play a remarkably small role in these narratives. In the agitational feature Napoleon-Gas (1925, dir. S. Timoshenko), it is clearly acceptable to exploit nature for certain causes. For example, like the Soviet scientists, to assure greater harvests by exterminating insects. It is not acceptable, on the other hand, to use poisonous gases to exterminate an urban population like the imperialist foreigners, the movie teaches us. The Soviet science fiction films of the 1920s are permeated by one political message: that the Soviet regime is under imperialist threat. Nature is primarily associated with territory; it is a canvas to be molded according to the needs of the Soviet people. The Death Ray from 1925 (dir. L. Kuleshov), Miss Mend (1926, dir. F. Ozep and B. Barnet), and even the aforementioned Aelita are all examples of this line of thought. In the 1930s, the narratives changed slightly, highlighting the bright future to come and the transformation that this future would entail, of both the population and its land. Still, a hierarchy was maintained between the urban space, which was proactive, reaching upwards and demanding educated and fashionable engagement from its population, the backward countryside, and magnificent but “unpolished” nature which was waiting to be tamed.

What kind of a world the completion of such a project might entail is nicely visualized in Evgeny Sherstobitov’s 1967 screen adaptation of Ivan Efremov’s novel Andromeda Nebula. This far-off future is, in fact, inhabited by New Soviet Men and Women who navigate a perfectly balanced, harmonious world, where the most laudable achievements of the past centuries—such as ancient togas—are integrated into a most advanced society, skilled in interplanetary travel and holographic dance parties. In that sense, this 1967 production complies exceptionally well with Evgeny Dobrenko’s assessment of the vectors of Stalinist cinema.

Still from Andromeda Nebula (1967), directed by Evgeny Sherstobitov.

Dobrenko (2008, 6) writes:

“In order to master the future, it is necessary, in the first place, to turn it into the past (as it is based on the ‘known’, the past does not scare), and, second, to sacrifice the present (which turns out from this future-directed perspective to be irrelevant, as everything is done ‘for the bright tomorrow’ and ‘for future generations’).”

This statement resonates loudly with a significant proportion of Soviet science fiction films, particularly those that adhere to the socialist realist canon. But to what extent is this canon still even relevant after Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of the cult of Stalin at the famous XX Party Congress? Why did Sherstobitov turn Efremov’s complex and subtle novel into a tribute, a monument to communism?


Cold War, propaganda & transnational space utopias

The end of the dictate of socialist realism granted the genre of science fiction greater freedom in terms of narratives and screenplays; at the same time, the early feats of the Soviet space program also aligned it with the emergent collective obsession with space exploration—the battlefield of the Cold War, which, in the Soviet imagination, also quickly turned into the site of a communist utopia. While terrestrial Soviet science fiction of the 1960s remains preoccupied with pointing out the lamentable consequences of Western individualism, materialism, and imperialism (Amphibian Man from 1962, dir. V. Chebotarev and G. Kazansky, is a good example of this), space science fiction offers a screen for projections of astounding visions of the future.

In fact, until the late 1970s, Soviet SF films exhibited a clear influence of trick-master Pavel Klushantsev’s science-popularization masterpiece, the cinematic tribute to the history of the Soviet space program, Road to the Stars (1957). This film—an exquisite combination of celebratory, patriotic narration, and footage that both memorialized the work of Soviet space scientists and extrapolated it, harnessing visualization as one of the privileged tools of imagination—set the pace for later productions characteristic of Soviet pre-moon landing science fiction cinema and popular science films alike.

Snapshot from Klushancev's Road to the stars (1957)

Klushantsev himself directed two more successful popular science films, Moon (1965) and Mars (1968). Produced by the Leningrad popular science film studio Lennauchfilm, Road to the Stars carefully navigated the border between documentation and fiction, embedding both into a clear ideological context, and using the cinematic medium as the privileged arena for tricks, much like film pioneers from the early twentieth century, such as Georges Méliès and Vasilii Zhuravlev in the 1936 Space Voyage (cf. Beumers 2016, 169-185).

Of course, an important difference between Klushantsev’s popular science production and Zhuravlev’s fiction feature is to be noted. While the latter draws out spaceflight as a symbol of Stalinism and Soviet power, and muses on spaceflight as a dream, Road to the Stars, inspired by the actual developments of the Soviet space program, could “dream bigger,” not only about a trip to the moon but also about an entire ecology of manned space and spaceflight, with satellites, rockets, moon landings, and space colonization. Moreover, if Zhuravlev’s film came out in the twilight of early Soviet cosmic enthusiasm, Road to the Stars was intended to make the spectator smell the rocket, and to invite Soviet youth to join the ranks of engineers, physicists, and pilots. Not only did this film inspire Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, it also resonated in a range of Soviet productions, such as Viktor Morgenshtern’s I Was a Satellite of the Sun (1959). This youth-oriented film combined futuristic animation with romantic shots of Earth—the kind of Earth that would allow space exploration; an Earth with a planetary governance system in place, with a balance between thriving nature and rationale, but also dedicated humans who were not afraid of sacrificing their lives for knowledge. Moreover, it exhibits a generally respectful, exploratory, curious attitude to the universe at large. What can life outside of Earth look like? We cannot know. However, following Klushantsev’s idealism about the capacities of the cinematic medium, it can be visualized, it can be speculated about, and, importantly, it can be tricked into being! A decade before CGI.

Snapshot from Viktor Morgenshtern’s I Was a Satellite of the Sun (1959)


Soviet space operas cross the Atlantic

This fascination with the observation of other worlds permeates Klushantsev’s first feature, Planet of the Storms, which was released only two days after the first anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, on April 14, 1962. This film, which features an international trip to Venus and only slightly pokes fun at the conservative, odd American robot Sir John, mostly exhibits a fascination with visually speculating about possible untamed nature on the Venusian surface, where species exist side by side, aggressive toward the Earthlings as a defense mechanism, rather than out of evil inclinations.

This film belongs to a range of science fiction films justified by the early feats of the Soviet space program (the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Gagarin’s 1961 pioneering flight, Leonov’s 1965 spacewalk), which were produced with big budgets at some of the most important national film studios (Lenfilm, Mosfilm, Dovzhenko Studios). Moreover, these “A quality of proverbially B productions, such as space operas” (Yates 2003) were also released during the Khrushchevian Thaw (1953-1964) which presented a window of relative openness of the USSR to the West, and before the USSR’s 1973 accession to the Berne Convention on copyright (Radynski 2009). These factors facilitated their migration to the US, where, granted producer Roger Corman’s blessing, some of them were refashioned to suit the anticipated preferences of the American audience. The Heavens Call (1959) became Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), footage from Toward a Dream (1963) was used in Queen of Blood (1966), and The Planet of Storms was re-edited into Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), with inserts from The Heavens Call. In an interview with Kinoeye in 2003, Corman, who affirms having bought the rights to the films due to their extraordinary quality, claims to have warned “the Russians” that he would have to adapt the films by cutting out all of the Soviet and anti-American propaganda, and that his warning was understandingly approved by “the Russians” (cf. Yates 2003).

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Stills from Klushantsev’s Planet of the Storms (1962).

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Corman’s first adaptation of the film, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, however, was not a great commercial success on the American market. The original narrative of marveling at natural diversity and at the space crew’s first attempts to negotiate a space for themselves on a foreign planet was adapted for a second time. Corman later hired Peter Bogdanovich, allegedly for as little as $6,000 USD, to “add some women into the picture,” saying that AIP was not willing to screen it otherwise (Yates 2003). This is how the cult technohorror space thriller Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women was made. Both adaptations made extensive use of Klushantsev’s imagery of the Venusian world and those of the space voyage, but all references to the original Soviet mission were omitted.

Moreover, the American adaptations consciously downplay the question of gender equality, which was highlighted, albeit naively, by the Soviet director. In Klushantsev’s film, Venus is a strange world full of unexpected life forms and challenges which probe both the Soviet man and the Soviet woman (and even make the capitalist robot lose his mind at one point). In Corman’s adaptation, however, this storyline eventually is completely replaced by the vulgar fantasy that Venus is a planet inhabited by attractive, malicious, and primitive blondes who finally end up worshiping the robot left behind by the international expedition as their god.

Interestingly enough, the “female shots,” shot at Major Studios in LA, were made during another adaptation of a Soviet science fiction film, Toward a Dream, Otar Koberidze and Mikhail Kariukov’s 1964 space opera about extraterrestrial contact. This production about the far-off future makes use of two devices to emphasize its fictionality. Opening shots are equipped with a voiceover address that dedicates the film “to young dreamers and romantics.” Furthermore, we eventually learn that the primary fictional narrative, i.e. the fictional space story, is embedded into the reverie of a future scientist. Future society is trying hard to develop a method of contacting alien civilizations; a Soviet and a Western scientist hold opposing ideological positions on the nature of a possible encounter—the Soviet believing in peace, and the Westerner predicting conflict. In this classical socialist realist future, that is, in young scientist Andrei’s present, the weather is great, the water is warm, and everyone does what they are best suited to do. “Fishermen live here, as well as poets, pupils, and astronomers, artists and cosmonauts,” the voiceover narrator explains.

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Stills from Otar Koberidze and Mikhail Kariukov’s Toward a Dream (1964).

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The Soviet version includes a hasty and somewhat shaky melodramatic, romantic interlude, which director Curtis Harrington’s adaptation commissioned by Corman disregards as unessential for the gist of the story. Rather, the American alternate version of Toward a Dream focuses on the action plot, remaining within the tradition of the Western action film, this particular one inspired by the horror genre. The Soviet dream within a dream becomes an American horror story.

The Soviet original builds on the idealistic argument that the only rationale behind an advanced civilization’s desire to travel to foreign planets can be its “thirst for knowledge.” All of the world’s science, the “collective intellect” of the planet, decides to put in gigantic efforts (including delivering impressive amounts of fuel to the intermediate base on the moon) to facilitate an expedition to Mars.

This feat of cosmopolitan spirit and scientific enthusiasm is represented by an animated sequence of moon-bound rockets, accompanied by one of two memorable songs from the film—the march-like Ia Zemlia (This is I, Earth), performed by an anonymous female lead (Earth) and famous Soviet and Russian popular singer Iosif Kobzon. An international, gender-diverse, and multigenerational crew is established and sent off to Mars. After a series of mishaps, they do find the alien crew on Mars and transmit evidence of it being represented by a beautiful blonde humanoid female named Aetania, in slightly unusual, modernist attire. In the concluding shots, we see her staring down at the spectators on Earth from a big screen on Gagarin Square. All ends well in this dream, and outside the dream, a spaceship has really been sent to Mars.

Still from Harrington’s Queen of Blood (1966).

Harrington’s Queen of Blood, however, only really begins here. Having cut out the melodrama and the ideological framework, the director/editor was left with somber scenes of the space expedition, and intriguing footage of an attractive female alien. The Soviet film never really explained why one should have reason to believe that Aetania the alien is a kind creature. And, as if taking a poke at the Soviets’ optimism, Queen of Blood expounds on the idea of her turning out to be a vampirical, man-eating monster. Footage with Florence Marly, whose attire had to at least partly match that of her Soviet colleagues’, was used to create this part of the story. Our lifeworlds are ambiguous and cannot be subordinated to idealist projections, Harrington seems to be replying to the Soviets and their reverie.


Dissecting Monumental Futures: The Introspective 1970s

The “dream” device was only dispensed in Soviet SF by the late 1960s, Andromeda Nebula presenting a utopian case in point, and also a tipping point with regards to the limits of the Soviet narrative of mastering nature on Earth and beyond its atmosphere. Irina Povolotskaia’s 1967 debut The Mysterious Wall pioneered in offering an alternative approach. This production, stylistically influenced by the French New Wave, was one of the Soviet films to question and lightly mock the Soviet authorities and their management of the priorities of scientific development. Instead of marveling at the prospects of the space age, Povolotskaia used the overarching theme of encountering outer space to interrogate the human capacity to ever really engage with otherness, such as aliens. In this case, the aliens take on the form of a mysterious wall that appears at regular intervals in the nowhere of the taiga. When humans approach the wall—an unknown, possibly alien origin species—it makes them experience powerful hallucinations that play with their most intimate memories. In one such episode, we learn, for example, that one of the protagonists—the idealistic, romantic Valia—had once served on a battleship which apparently helped rescue a Canadian writer who was found estranged and alone at sea. In this episode, the writer, whose appearance and speech indicate a surrealist and perhaps psychedelic influence, says: “A Martian? No, I am not a Martian. I am no one. I am alone in the ocean. Although, it sounds beautiful. A Martian. Yes, to you, I am a Martian. We are all Martians. We are all naked in the ocean.” This episode is key to the message that the film harbors regarding otherness. The mysterious wall provides a strong metaphor for barriers between individuals; the metaphor is further enhanced by the foregrounded relations between the protagonists; all this is quite a revolutionary gesture for a space-oriented 1960s Soviet film, and one that will figure extensively in productions of the following decade.

Still from The Mysterious Wall (1967), directed by Irina Povolotskaia.

Unfortunately, in terms of special effects that made the late 1950s-1960s productions particularly interesting for Corman, these later films would fall behind due to the later arrival of personal computers and the later development of CGI in the Soviet Union, an institutional lack of interest in SF among directors and scriptwriters, and a lack of institutional support for the genre, which would not receive its own committee with the Union of Cinematographers until the mid-1980s.

Nevertheless, the 1970s and early 1980s remain a very interesting period for Soviet science fiction cinema, particularly due to the expansion of its horizons, anticipated by The Mysterious Wall and Andromeda Nebula. The American moon landing of 1969 signaled the end of the glorious days of the Soviet space program, and the end of Klushantsev’s career at Lennauchfilm in 1974 marked the end of a different—although related—era. Nevertheless, 1970s Soviet science fiction cinema still retained a privileged spot for space-themed films. Teen and children’s films continued to harness the space exploration trope as part of the Soviet citizenship-building project, while also trying out quirky special effects.

Following the Strugatksy brothers’ 1967 harsh critique of Soviet science fiction cinema, which, according to the celebrated writers, lacked in imagination, direction, screenplay skills, and special effects, Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) dug deeper than ever before into certain tropes that permeated the very core of Soviet world-building, in practice and in imagination. Solaris, inspired by the aforementioned Mysterious Wall, explores the possibilities of conversing with a radically other lifeform, a sentient ocean. In contrast to Povolotskaia’s production, which is somewhat axiologically detached, and to the dismay of the novel’s author Stanislaw Łem, Tarkovsky used the trope of the alien encounter to offer an exploration of the human psyche, seeking redemption in a rather mystical kind of humanism—the same device that pervades Stalker, his adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic (1972). At the same time the two films can, in an equally convincing way, be read as a criticism of Soviet world-building, including its segmentation of the world into “World” and “Zone” (cf. Gomel 2013), the former epitomized by the utopian society of Andromeda Nebula, and the latter by outcasts, from Monkey in Stalker to Hari in Solaris. The Zone—which begins to stare at us ever more glaringly through the cracks in utopian imagery after the end of the 1960s space craze ... Solaris and Stalker—make the spectator realize that both the Zone (of terror, of crime, of exclusion) and the World beyond it are a phenomenon that could not be imaginable without humanist tenants, such as the idea of radically transforming nature in order to master it. And once Zones are a fact of life, there is no way back to romantic prehistory, to ancient equilibrium, Tarkovsky’s films demonstrate.

Still from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).


Nature in the Limelight, Utopia in the Mud

The teen film Per aspera ad astra (dir. R. Viktorov, 1981) goes a step further, pioneeringly casting the limelight on the future consequences of mindless terraformation. The film showcases the destroyed planet Dessa, governed by an evil tyrant, in flames, poverty, destruction. But these images, evocative of anthropogenic disasters, such as the drying up Aral Sea, are not only shocking representations of disaster. In this film, the planet, alongside the cyborg alien Niia, becomes a protagonist for the first time in Soviet film history. Reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Per aspera ad astra juxtaposes an unsettlingly idyllic Earth to its dark side, to a Zone – Dessa; positing an alien artificial intelligence, Niia, as an interlocutor between the two realms. The remastered recent version of Per aspera ad astra completed by Viktorov’s son in 2001, stipulates that all footage of Dessa features Planet Earth. Goskino’s censorship had prevented this detail from entering the original film as the scriptwriter, novelist Kir Bulychev, had initially intended. Per aspera ad astra makes a very powerful statement for cosmopolitanism beyond borders, and for the inevitable horrific effects of uncontrolled, market-oriented exploitation of natural resources. It is also one of the last Soviet science fiction films that believes in the power of humanity to reverse adverse effects of its activities on the planet (cf. Fedorov 2002).

Still from Per aspera ad astra (1981), directed by R. Viktorov.

Later productions, such as Georgii Daneliia’s dystopian tale Kin-dza-dza! from 1986—a sarcastic and yet cute-ish critique of Soviet utopian thought and its pragmatic politics, the quintessence of what Elana Gomel calls “utopia in the mud”—may be seen as human rather than artificial, cyborg intervention on Dessa: dirty, slightly bored, petty, and fatalistically invested in following obnoxious rituals. The souls of the protagonists from this film “have not been saved,” as was pleaded by a slightly earlier, pre-perestroika production, Moon Rainbow from 1983 (dir. A. Ermash) – an eerie account of every traveler’s worst nightmare: here, a number of kosmodesantniki, i.e. an international space crew, that had taken a trip to planet Oberon near Uranus, and survived a peculiar accident there, now exhibit superhuman qualities. They are capable of affecting magnetic fields, but can also temporarily rid themselves of this superpower by leaving a black mark on a special receiver. The film explores the implications of this situation for Earthlings: should the astronauts be considered a threat to humanity? Are they merely enhanced human beings? Who is to decide? Will humanity ever be able to comprehend the secrets of the universe?

The plot does not advance beyond these questions, nor is a definite answer provided by the end of the film. The fate of the astronauts on Earth also remains unclear. This kind of mystical minimalism is not novel: it is clearly reminiscent of internationally acclaimed science fiction films, such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Furthermore, it points to the materiality of the cinematographic experience: rather than experimenting with special effects, Moon Rainbow emphasizes embodied psychology.

Poster for Moon Rainbow (1983), directed by A. Ermash.

The film leaves an uncanny impression because it does not follow any of the two outlined trends in Soviet science fiction cinematography (neither the utopian optimism characteristic of films until the late 1960s nor the philosophical preoccupations that surface later) clearly enough for the audience to be able to classify it. However, it also clearly illustrates some of the key concerns of Soviet film policy of the early 1980s and the condition of Soviet scientific fantasy as a genre during that same period. Moon Rainbow is saturated with doubt. The problem is not the future of spaceflight, or of international cooperation (according to the movie, the world has already moved on to a transnational phase, where it runs according to the order imposed by supranational organizations, such as the Space Security Service), but the system that made spaceflight possible in the first place. Apparently, this system thrives on controlling individuals, under the pretense that a lack of information may threaten humanity, which is now expanding its world to horizons unheard of in the past. Indeed, the world of Moon Rainbow is divided into Earth (zemlia) and the extraterrestrial world (vnezemel’e), which is portrayed as dangerous, lonely, and menacing, albeit worth exploring.

The film explores the consequences of an unforeseen clash of Earth (or, rather, its Earthlings) and the extraterrestrial world (vnezemel’e). Rather than exploring the foreign environment, the preoccupation of Planet of the Storms and, to an extent, Solaris, the primary concern of the authorities on Earth is to determine the scope of its effects on astronauts. The astronauts of this film are not space voyagers or explorers, but paratroopers, cosmic commandos (kosmodesantniki). The universe’s power to affect the human body and mind is immediately interpreted as a potential threat to humanity; innocent kosmodesantniki are transformed into potential enemies. Their pleas: “Do not rummage through our souls. It is not only pointless, it is cruel,” and their assertions that they are “no more of a threat [to humanity] than any average person” are not taken into account.

The core problem addressed by the film is the issue of the individual’s place within a system built around notions such as transparency, security, and caution, and guided by the belief that society can function according to the same unemotional, rationalist logic that drives technological progress. Following prophetic Tallinnfilm productions from the late 1970s, such as The Inquest of Pilot Pirx (1979, dir. Marek Piestrak) and Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979, G. Kromanov), this film explores how this kind of social order might function when faced with unpredictable and uncontrollable situations; how it might deal with individuals who have the will and the means to overturn established order and rules. Moon Rainbow ends on an ambiguous note. Norton, one of the members of the unlucky crew, concludes: “So who are we? We are people, Dave, and I believe that we can be known. Not at once, it seems. And not in special quarantine zones. We might have retired too early – we could still be of much use. […] I am not at all certain that our generation will understand the essence of how outer space affects us.”

Still from Konstantin Lopushanski’s Dead Man’s Letters (1986).

Special quarantine zones, this obsession of the broadly outline spectrum of Soviet SF, implode in later Soviet 1980s films; most significantly, in Konstantin Lopushanski’s Dead Man’s Letters (1986) – a somber film about a post-nuclear-war world, where nothing but zones are left. A zone of underground bunkers, the privileged zone, with the promise of a dreadful future, and a zone on the surface, where nuclear smog has long replaced breathable air, and promises of the future are replaced by final moments of humanity.

Cover image: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972).

Natalija Majsova

Natalija Majsova is an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Ljubljana (Department of Cultural Studies) and a researcher at the Catholic University of Louvain (Department of Communication Sciences). Her research interests range from cultural theory and film studies to (post)Soviet studies and media archaeology. Her new book Memorable Futures: Soviet SF Cinema and the Space Age (Lexington Books) is upcoming in Fall 2020.


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Gomel, Elana. Utopia in the Mud. Judging Nature in Soviet Science Fiction Film. Screening nature: Cinema beyond the human, ed. Anat Pick and Guinevere Narraway, 162-176 (Oxford, NY: Berghahn books).

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This essay is part of the Revenge of the Real special project by The Terraforming research program and Strelka Mag. Read more essays here.

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