Make Mine Venus!
Thomas F. Bertonneau | Oswego, NY United States | 04/09/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Polish science fiction novelist Stanislaw Lem (born 1922) must take pride in the fact that his "Solaris" (1962) has now been twice filmed, first by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) and more recently - also less effectively - by an American director whose name escapes me (2003); yet as early as 1960 Lem's first science fiction novel, "The Astronauts" (1952), had already appeared in an adaptation for the silver screen, directed by an East German, Kurt Maetzig. "First Spaceship on Venus" issued, in fact, from a Polish and East German collaboration, with contributions, in the ensemble of players, from three or four "third world" nations. Viewers will recognize Japanese actress Yoko Tani as the sole female crewmember of the space research vessel "Cosmostrator," the titular "First Spaceship" on earth's putative "twin," Venus. This is a mostly superb film, quite magical in its expressionistic special effects. Enticingly for audiences, almost half of the action takes place on Venus amidst sets that do justice to Lem's insistence that alien life will be incomprehensible to humanity. The story, briefly, is this: in 1985 excavations "to irrigate the Gobi Desert" discover extraterrestrial artifacts, one of which, a glassy "spool," contains the last message sent home from a spaceship engaged in reconnoitering the earth. The narration links this fictional incident to the actual 1908 Tunguska meteor impact. The "spool" has sustained damage and yields only a fraction of its contents, but from this bit scientists determine that the visitors originated on Venus, whereupon the "World Space Agency" determines to mount an expedition there. An international crew take command of the "Cosmostrator." The "Cosmostrator" itself demands some attention as one of the most unusual of silver-screen spaceships of the 1950s and 60s: its central silvery cylinder, housing the crew, is surrounded by four similarly hued cylinders of nearly equal dimension housing the engines; the sum of it is a kind of powerful elegance. But the real interest lies in the Venusian scenario itself. Maetzig gives us a shadowy, smoke-and-gas- shrouded landscape full of weird, half-obliterated shapes. One sequence shows the astronauts moving in their "ground cars" through what appears to be a street of melted skyscrapers; there are also huge underground spaces and indecipherable geodesic spheres and cones. The explorers gradually deduce that, on the verge of dousing the earth with radiation preparatory to invading and occupying it, the Venusians destroyed themselves in a fratricidal atomic war. We see the permanently etched shadows of the victims on a blasted wall. In an extremely alien episode, a lake of organic muck chases the terrestrials up the spiral ramp of a half-fused tower, only to retreat mysteriously before catching them fatally at the summit. The visuals elude adequate verbal description. If anyone knew the work of the 1950s and 60s science fiction illustrator Richard Powers, who did paperback covers in a semi-abstract style full of glassy-metallic quasi-biological and quasi-mechanical shapes, that might serve as a good reference. (Samples of Powers' work can be found on-line, should anyone care to go looking.) At the film's finale, in the prototypical Lem-gambit, the Venusians' automated defenses reverse the planet's gravity-field, hurling the "Cosmostrator" back into space, minus two or three unlucky casualties. Despite the Soviet-era utopian bravura, the mission has accomplished but little - the explorers are, in effect, defeated. Between the human and the non-human no genuine communication seems possible, especially where one party has insulated itself behind layers of electronics and automation and is long since a collective suicide. (This story of non-communication comes quite close to the plot of "Solaris," superficial differences notwithstanding - Tarkovsky must surely have known Maetzig's film; he would of course have been familiar with Lem's work beyond "Solaris.") One senses that this English version, with a dubbed soundtrack for American distribution, probably leaves a good many scenes on the cutting-room floor; neither can one tell much about the acting, which, in any case, is of less interest than the strangely realized other world. There is an amusing tracked robot named Omega. The source-print seems well preserved and the format is wide-screen. (A video-tape from a different producer derived from a faded print and cut the image down to television-screen dimensions.) On the strength of the scenic design, this movie should recommend itself to genre aficionados. Anyone who has never seen it is in for a treat."
You get what you pay for
Thomas F. Bertonneau | 05/04/2004
(2 out of 5 stars)
"NOT as described by Amazon or the jacket - not the 130 minute original but the 78 minute dubbed version shown in the UK. The same poor quality picture (resolution 720 x 480) and sound as the 2000 release but much cheaper.
Based on Lem's 1951 first novel The Astronauts the theme is pacifist - compare with the also 1959 "On the Beach".
The fuzzy images on the DVD do not do justice to the excellent camerawork and (for the time) special effects.
At this price worth getting to compare with US films of the period."
Gorgeous Image DVD makes me lust for the original cut
Surfink | Racine, WI | 08/01/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"As evidenced by the extremely mixed reviews here, this East German/Polish co-production (filmed in 1959, released here in 1962) seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it affair. Personally, I'm in the lovers' camp, although if you've never seen First Spaceship on Venus you deserve some fair warning. According to IMDb, the East German version of this runs 130 minutes, the Polish (?) version 93. If either figure is reliable there's anywhere from 15 to 52 minutes missing from the 78-minute U.S. version, so there are definitely continuity problems. The English script is somewhat muddled and seems to repeat or contradict itself at times, several subplots have obviously been trimmed or junked entirely, and the English dubbing is particularly bad, with virtually no attempt to match dialogue with people's mouth movements. Also somewhat distracting is the heavy use of stock music cues (particularly the familiar Universal "Wolf Man" theme), although a few almost dissonant passages sound like they might be snippets of the original score. Between the heavy editing, rewriting, and dubbing it's really impossible to evaluate the original screenplay, but even with only the skeleton of SF legend Stanislaw Lem's original novel that's left, it's still more conceptually challenging than the average 1950s space opera (compare the roughly contemporary War of the Satellites, Missile to the Moon, or even a "classic" such as This Island Earth). In brief, a Venus mission is launched to determine the source of an ominous message encoded into a metallic spool unearthed by archaeologists. As noted by others, there are a number of ideas that presage later, more famous SF productions, including Star Trek (the racially and sexually diverse flight crew and Moon base personnel), 2001: A Space Odyssey (the robot chess game; the EVA repair mission; the buried artifact that's actually a communications device), and Star Wars (the `cute' R2D2-like robot), as well as a few bits more typical of cheap 50s sci-fi (the meteor shower, the shipboard romance). If you can bear with the roughness of the script and dialogue you will be rewarded with some very creative and generally superior (for the time) production design, optical and sound effects, and miniature/model work. The Earth laboratories, Moon base, and spaceship all look cool enough, and that artifact makes some crazy sounds, but when they get to Venus, things really kick into gear. There are strange sponge-like trees, lots of swirling smoke and fog, and wispy neon-colored gelatinous clouds flying around. The astronauts discover some high-tech Venusian "ruins," are attacked by black-and-red lava-like blob creatures, and ultimately discover the extinct Venusians' forbidding secret. The absence of big Hollywood bucks does show at times (the metal "bugs" are laughably cheesy, even for 1959), but First Spaceship on Venus makes up in imagination what it lacks in budget, much like Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires. If you dig the general atmosphere of that movie, this is probably up your alley as well. If you can't get past the problems with the script and dubbing, or are expecting slick modern special effects, this is probably not your cup of tea. If only someone could release the German version, competently dubbed or subtitled, FSOV would probably be ranked right up there with the Golden Age "classics"-Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M, etc. As it is, "serious" SF fans will probably be intrigued, if not completely satisfied, while the casual viewer may find it rough sledding.
Fortunately for fans of FSOV, Wade Williams and Image have unearthed a virtually pristine print for this DVD transfer. It's letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the color saturation, color balance, black level, sharpness, and shadow/highlight detail are generally excellent. (There is a little blocking-up in the shadows at times.) Physical damage is limited to some very light speckling/blemishing, that does get a bit heavier around a couple of reel changes, and the occasional damaged frame. After years of watching cropped, faded, dupey TV prints it's a revelation to actually see the whole frame, and especially in such terrific shape. Until someone lays their hands on the original European cut this is probably as good as this film will ever look. (Be sure to avoid the awful full-frame Diamond DVD edition that's paired with Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet; and I haven't seen the Platinum DVD but it's a safe bet it's just as bad if not worse than Diamond's.) The trailer for FSOV is matted to about 1.85:1 and doesn't look nearly as nice as the feature, suffering from mediocre color, scratching, and a soft, dupey look. Five trailers for other Wade Williams/Image releases are also included. A can't-miss buy for admirers of this underappreciated Eastern European gem."
First Spaceship on Venus/Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet
Michael Bennett | Toronto Canada | 12/12/2000
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Hold on reviewer #1! This ain't Matrix but both films are quite watchable. The image quality of First Spaceship is as good as anything I've seen on VHS and Voyage is very good. Together provide an interesting look at the Communist bloc sci-fi of the era and the fx stand up pretty well against most of what was coming out of Hollywood at the time. Widescreen and extras would be nice but it IS only seven bucks for the two films. That's $3.50 per. A bargain for a fun double feature."