Exploring (Before “Star Wars”): The Russian Antecedents of 2001: A Space Odyssey

While Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey used Arthur C. Clark’s 1951 short story The Sentinel as its launch point, Kubrick’s true inspirations for his game changing science fiction classic were the pioneering Russian/Eastern Bloc science fiction films released during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most of these films were adapted directly or inspired indirectly by the acclaimed works of Polish author Stanislaw Lem, the definitive forefather of introspective, psychological and philosophical science fiction films. The great production values and story quality of Russian science fiction films continues today, with 2017’s Salyut-7 and Spacewalk, along with Forsaken (2018), Glavnyj (2015), and Gagarin: First In Space (2013).

All of these films—and their corresponding literary source materials—come highly recommended; they’re listed in chronological, then alphabetical, order by year of release. Among this listing of influential Russian/Eastern Bloc films, you’ll learn about a few influential—well, fan favorites, regardless of their overall quality—American science fiction films that strove for originality and didn’t pilfer their superior Russian/Eastern Bloc counterparts.

Keep looking up to the stars.

1924—Aelita by Yakov Protazanov

Also known as Aelita, Queen of Mars, this black-and-white Russian silent film based on Alexei Tolystoy’s novel of the same name—forgotten as one of the earliest, full-length science fiction films regarding space travel—concerns a totalitarian Mars overthrown by Queen Aelita and her Earth-man lover. This film’s influence over Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)—as well as the set and costume designs of the later American serials Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon—can’t be denied. First released in English-speaking markets in an edited form as Aelita: Revolt of the Robots in 1929, it was Americanized and remade as the ill-remembered Flight to Mars (1951).

1935—Gibel sensatsii (Loss of Feeling) by Aleksandr Andriyevsky

All of the robot, genetic-biological engineering exposition we’ve enjoyed in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Gene Roddenberry’s The Questor Tapes, and other sci-fi films begins with one man—who really did “create” the humanoids: Nobel Prize-nominated and award-winning Austrian-Hungarian writer, Karel Čapek. His 1919 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), first produced for the stage in 1920 and set fifty years in the future of 1969, introduced the word “robot” and many of the concepts used in today’s science fiction, especially the plotlines of robots (and human clones; as in Per Aspera Ad Astra) revolting against their human creators, dehumanization through technology, and the failures of a utopia driven by technology into class warfare. While Andriyevsky’s vision is a stunning achievement and shares striking similarities, it is, none the less, incorrectly credited as an adaptation of R.U.R. and Čapek’s work receives no on-screen credit. Both works are somewhat similar to Wesley Barry’s less-effective, low-rent sci-fi variant on the material, Creation of the Humanoids (1962).

1936—Kosmicheskiy Reys (Cosmic Journey) by Vasily Zhuravlyov

Zhuravlyov raised the bar set by Aelita and set the quality standard for all of the groundbreaking Russian films in this appendix with this futuristic tale of Russia’s first moon shot in 1946 that substitutes the comic book buffoonery of its American counterparts with scientifically accurate depictions of spaceships, spacesuits, and weightlessness in space. While early American film goers were entertained by the toy ray gun mentality of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, Aleksandr Filimonov penned this black-and-white silent film based on the novel by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky that stands alongside Metropolis as one of the crowning achievements of pre-Kubrickian science fiction films. It should be as revered as H.G Wells Things to Come released in the same year, but alas, it’s not; outside of its homeland, it’s forgotten.

1952—Sadko by Aleksandr Ptushko

This earthbound Russian tale, adapted from an 1896 opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, tells the story of a traveling minstrel who embarks on a quest to bring home a mythical phoenix-bird of happiness to restore order to his corrupt homeland; he comes to discover that happiness is closer to home than one thinks. The fact that Ptushko’s lavish tale impressed at the Venice Film Awards and earned a coveted Silver Lion didn’t stop Roger Corman from reimaging it as a Ray Harryhausen ripoff, The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (1962). The travesties to Ptushko’s visionary works based on Russian folklore continued with Ilya Muromets (1956; Americanized as The Sword and the Dragon in 1963) and Sampo (1959; Americanized as The Day the Earth Froze). If there was ever a need for a box set restoration proper of three films, Ptushko’s films are it.

1957—Doroga k Zvezdam (Road to the Stars) by Pavel Klushantsev

While staid in its educational, documentary-styled first half—which deals in the science “fact” of space travel—the second half becomes a fascinating prediction (with a rotating, wheeled-shaped space station eleven years before Kubrick’s vision appeared on theatre screens) as the film explores the speculative “fiction” of space travel and marks Klushantsev as the grandfather of Russian and Eastern Bloc science fiction films; for without him, there would have been no 2001: A Space Odyssey or Silent Running. Klushantsev’s dreams of the stars began in 1946, with his groundbreaking, 10-minute short, Meteoroid (Meteors), followed by 1951’s Kosmos (Universe). He then broke away from the short-film format with the highly influential, 58-minute long Doroga k Zvezdam; keen eyes will see where Stanley Kubrick found his costume and set design inspirations for his own homage to the Russian space epics of the 1960s—pictures themselves Americanized by Roger Corman and American International Pictures. Doroga k Zvezdam proved to be successful enough that Klushantsev expanded his outer space fantasies into his only feature-length film, Planeta Bur (1962). Sadly, he went back to the short-film format, with the equally majestic Stantsiia Luna (Station Moon; 1965; 50 minutes), Mapc (Mars; 1968; 50 minutes), and I See Earth (1970; 16 minutes). The majestic sights of Kosmos, Stantsiia Luna, and Mapc come courtesy of acclaimed Russian art director Yuri Shvets, which prepared him for his feature-film masterpiece under the eye of Mikhail Karzhukov: Nebo Zovyot.

1959—The Angry Red Planet by Ib Melchoir

Released the same year as the far superior Nebo Zovyot, acclaimed writer Ib Melchoir (noted for the short story Death Race 2000) and producer Sidney Pink (who came up with the story) got the jump on the Russian sci-fi epics produced in the wake of Nebo Zovyot. Dispensing with those pesky psychological and philosophical ramifications of space travel that made the Russian films superior, this journey to Mars goes straight for the (low budget) action with a lone female survivor of the mission (in a curve-fitting jumpsuit and ballet flats; perfect for space travel) who relates in flashback the crew’s terrors in dealing with man-eating plants, towering rat-spiders, and metal-eating sea amoebas—all shot through red filters to make the cardboard-and-rubbery sets “look” like Mars. In the end, Pink’s story is not an antecedent to 2001: A Space Odyssey but to 1979’s Alien—itself a homage/remake to 1958’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Melchoir also penned the Alien inspirational-precursors Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962) and Planet of the Vampires(1965).

1959—Nebo Zovyot (The Sky Calls) by Valery Fokin/Mikhail Karzhukov

Also translated as The Heavens Beacon, the story concerns the galactic competition between the United States and Russia to execute the first mission to Mars. When an American spaceship requests repairs from a Russian crew, they come to discover their Russian saviors are on their way to Mars; the Americans set sail to beat the Russians, veer off-course, become lost in space, and the Russians scrub their mission to save the American crew. So great are the Yuri Shvets production designs on Nebo Zovyot, Stanley Kubrick hired Shvets to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey during its pre-production stages. Sadly, that greatness is lost, courtesy of the film’s Roger Corman Americanization as Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), which also features special effects inserts from Karzhukov’s next film, Mechte Navstrechu (1963). You’ve also seen Nebo Zovyot’s special effects shots repurposed in Queen of Blood (1966).

1960—Der Schweignde Stern (The Silent Star) by Kurt Maetzig

The plot concerns the discovery of an alien artifact: a data-spool thought to be a flight recorder from a crashed ship; an international team of astronauts travels to Venus to discover the spool’s origins. This influential antecedent to Kubrick’s masterpiece, mistakenly coined as a Russian space epic, is actually an East German and Poland co-production based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1951 novel, The Astronaut. (Lem’s novels broke to mainstream American audiences courtesy of the success of the film adaptation of his best know work, Solaris.) While released in Poland as Milczaca Gwiadza, it was released in the United States—relatively intact in 1962—as First Spaceship on Venus. It also received additional viewings through American UHF television syndication as Planet of the Dead, airing back-to-back alongside The Demon Planet (Planet of the Vampires).

1962—Journey to the Seventh Planet by Sidney Pink

A crew investigating Uranus, which turns out to be a world rife in Earth-like vegetation, runs afoul of an alien intelligence capable of manifesting their deepest fantasies (sort of like 1956’s Forbidden Planet); an “intelligence” that seems to be only concerned with the hot Danish pin-up beauties dancing in the chauvinistic Earthmen’s heads. This, Sidney Pink and Ib Melchoir’s collaborative second effort, after The Angry Red Planet, wants to be a psychological Russian science-fiction epic, but is too cheaply made to achieve its potential. However, once you forgive the science gaffes of the day—that failed to realize the planets beyond Mars (expect for Pluto) are gas giants and impossible to land on their “surfaces”—this shot-in-Denmark treat is executed better than most sci-fi films of the day. While this film was released prior to the 1972 film version of Solyaris, which followed a similar theme regarding mind-influencing aliens, Lem’s book was issued in 1961—a year prior to Pink’s film. And if it all feels a bit like Ray Bradbury’s iconic 1948 short story, “Mars Is Heaven”—then it probably is. The Wizard of Mars (1965), based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—complete with an astronaut in silver go-go boots named “Dorothy”—also dabbled in an even lower-budgeted alien mind control plot. Inspired by the success of Alien, J7P served as the inspiration for the Alien cash-in “remake” Galaxy of Terror (1981). Melchoir also lent his pen to 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

1962—Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms) by Pavel Klushantsev

The coordinated effort of three Russian spaceships making the first manned trip to Venus is assisted by “John,” a lumbering robot-computer. John served as Kubrick’s original idea for “Hal,” that is until production problems resulted in the sentient being’s redesign to a single, red-eyed monitor. This came to be Klushantsev’s only feature film; after being purchased by Roger Corman and criminally reedited into 1965’s Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, who can blame him? To add insult to cinematic injury: Planeta Bur was revamped a second time with inserts from Mikhail Karzhukov’s Nebo Zovyot—and added a few bear skinned-clad bikini cavewomen—as Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (also known on American UHF television as Gill Women of Venus).

1963—Mechte Navstrechu (A Dream Come True) by Mikhail Karzhukov

While Roger Corman repurposed Karzkukov’s Nebo Zovyot as Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), Mechte Navstrechu became the space vampire romp, Queen of Blood (1966). In the plot of the superior Russian original, the inhabitants of a distant planet receive a radio transmission of an Earth-based love song; they send a ship to investigate. When the alien mission crash lands on Phobos, a Mars moon, the Earth receives a distress call to rescue the survivors; technical problems and the harsh landscape threaten the mission.

1963—Oblok Magellana (Magellanic Cloud) by Jindrich Polak

During the exploration of the Alpha Centauri system in the year 2163, a star weary crew encounters a derelict alien craft (read: Alien) and a malfunctioning computer (read: HAL 2000), along with personal and professional tensions among the crew and passengers as the psychological breakdown of one of the crew threatens to destroy the ship (as in Solaris). Another mistaken Russian space epic; this one actually hails from Czechoslovakia (as Ikarie XB 1) and was also issued under the above Polish-language title. As with Der Schweignde Stern, this was also based on the work of Stanislaw Lem: 1951’s Magellanic Cloud. This was also Americanized, somewhat unscathed, as Voyage to the End of the Universe (1964).

1964—Robinson Crusoe on Mars by Byron Haskins

Director Bryon Haskins, who directed several of the higher-quality The Outer Limits episodes for American television, scared kids for decades with his version of H.G Wells War of the Worlds (1953). Haskins then dispensed with the Martian-invasion tomfoolery for the first American space movie to delve—abet dryly—in “science fact” with Paramount Pictures’ science fiction entry about a journey to Mars originating from an Earth-based, rotating-wheeled space station in Conquest of Space (1955). Haskins applied that same care for scientific accuracy with Ib Melchoir’s science fiction retelling of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 classic literary tale; he nixed Melchoir’s Angry Red Planet-inspired killer alien monster foolishness to embrace scientific plausibility in the script’s subsequent rewrites. Sadly, more people remember the casting of Batman’s Adam West—as a way-too-soon, quickly-killed off astronaut—than for the film’s superb storytelling or mesmerizing special effects work.

1965—Terrore nello Spazio (Terror in Space) by Mario Bava

The story and set design influences of this low-budget Italian precursor to Alien (1979), adapted by horror-maestro Mario Bava from Renato Pestriniero’s Italian-language short-story, “One Night in 21 Hours,” which concerns astronauts possessed by the spirits of a dead alien crew while on a rescue mission, can’t be denied. The film remained intact on its Americanized theatrical rounds—with the English-language dialog penned by Ib Melchoir—under the title Planet of the Vampires (and syndicated on American UHF television as The Demon Planet). No actual fangs come out; however, those funky, yellow-piped bondage-leather space suits with the flipped-up collars look vampirific enough to justify the title change.

1967—Tumannost Andromedy (The Andromeda Nebula) by Evgeniy Sherstobitov

Based on the 1957 novel by Ivan Yefremov of the same name, this tale dispenses with the psychological effects of space travel and concentrates on the sociological—within the context of a Marxist society that has united several planetary civilizations. The mission of the starship Tantra to introduce a new alien planet to the union falters when the crew encounters the gravitational forces of an “iron star” that killed off the planet’s inhabitants and threatens to destroy their ship.

1970—Signale: Ein Weltraumabenteuer (Signal: An Outer Space Adventure) by Gottfried Kolditz

When a research ship on an exploration for life in Earth’s solar system disappears in a meteor storm near Jupiter, an astronaut refuses to accept the mission is lost; he sets out on a “metaphysical mission” to find the crew—which includes his wife. This German and Polish co-production, based on an East German novel Asteroidenjager (Asteroid Hunters) by Carlos Rasch, bears some thematic similarities to Solyaris; however, unlike the similarly-minded 2001, Signale offers back stories for its characters. The film is also notable as the first to feature a space ship with a visible, exterior rotating centrifuge (of spokes) to sustain gravity. Gottfried Kolditz returned to the fold with Im Staub der Sterne.

1972— Eolomea by Hermann Zschoche

Based on the book of the same name by acclaimed Bulgarian writer Angel Wagenstein, this East German-Russian-Bulgarian co-production concerns the disappearance of eight cargo ships coinciding with the loss of contact with a distant space station. Earth scientists determine the incidents are the result of a mysterious Cygnus-born transmission, deciphered as “Eolomea,” which is believed to be a planet; it’s soon discovered the planet’s inhabitants stole the Earth-armada to escape an oppressive regime. The film bares similarities to both Signale and Solyaris, as the film explores the psychological and philosophical implications of space travel.

1972 —Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull

The award-winning Special Effects Supervisor from 2001: A Space Odyssey earned his director’s stripes with this sister film that dispenses with the psychological and spiritual plotting of its Russian antecedents and substitutes an environmental message regarding a fleet of space freighters transporting clusters of geodesic domes containing the last remnants of Earth ecology. When the mission’s resident botanist sees his dreams of Earth’s reforesting scrubbed, he suffers a mental breakdown and steals the last remaining dome. The film is noted for creating a “Saturn sequence” that Kubrick wanted for 2001, but was unable to accomplish as result of time and technical constraints. The screenplay, penned by acclaimed American writer/director Michael Cimino and television producer Steven Bocho, was post-adapted into a rare, highly-coveted 1972 novel by Harlan Thompson. Since this was produced and released by the same studio responsible for 1978’s Battlestar Galactica, Universal repurposed stock footage of the cargo ships and the dome sets for a few episodes of the Star Wars TV hopeful.

1972—Solyaris (Solaris) by Andrei Tarkovsky

Unfairly and incorrectly classified as a 2001: A Space Odyssey rip-off, Solyaris is based on Stanislaw Lem’s highly-acclaimed, 1961 breakthrough novel of the same name. In this epic, metaphysical journey that explores the influence “outer space” has on a man’s “inner space,” a psychologist travels to a space station orbiting a distant, liquid planet to discover what caused the crew—actually an alien force on the planet can that can recreate physical realities from one’s thoughts (like 1962’s Journey to the Seventh Planet)—to suffer hallucinations resulting in several deaths. Tarkovsky continued with these philosophical and psychological themes in 1979’s Stalker, which concerns a ranger guide’s journey into the mysterious Zone, where a sentient being can fulfill one’s inner most desires.

1974—Moskva-Kassiopeya (Moscow: Cassiopeia) by Richard Viktorov

This early directing effort by Viktorov (Per Aspera Ad Astra), also known by the English-language title Children of the Universe, pre-dates Star Wars with a production design that resembles an old TV episode of Star Trek. When Earth receives radio contact from the Cassiopeia constellation, a crew comprised of teenagers is sent on a three decades-long journey to investigate, by which time they’ll reach the age of 40. Upon arrival, they learn their mission is to liberate a planet’s inhabitants from an artificial intelligence and its robot armies. The film was successful enough to warrant a 1975 sequel, Otroki vo vselennoy (Teens in the Universe).

1976—Im Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of Stars) by Gottfried Kolditz

The fourth and final film by the DEFA (Der Schweignde Stern, Signale, Eolomea) this is the only original-scripted film the studio produced that is not an adaptation of a novel. Dispensing with the psychological and philosophical plotting of its Russian counterparts, Euro-science fiction connoisseurs refer to this East German and Romanian co-production as the “German Barbarella”—referring to the production design of Roger Vadim’s 1968 film adaptation of a popular French comic strip; others will see production elements of Space: 1999 and the later ‘80s American television series Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. The plot concerns a team of astronauts dispatched on a six-year journey to respond to a distress call from a distant, desolate planet in the regions of unexplored space. The crew comes to discover their hosts are actually invaders enslaving the indigenous population to mine the planet for corporate profit.

1977—Operation Ganymed by Rainer Erier

A dystopian-inspired version of an introspective Russian space epic produced for German theatres, this also appeared on German and European television as Heroes: Lost in the Dust of the Stars. The plot concerns a United Nations-sponsored space mission as three Americans, two Europeans, and one Russian deal with the psychological effects of returning to an Earth decimated by a cataclysmic event. The questions are bountiful: Are they back on Earth. Did they die on Ganymede and is this a hellish penance. Is the agency that sent them into space conducting an experiment?

1978—Doznanie pilota Pirksa by Marek Piestrak

The influential writings of Stanislaw Lem returned with this tale based on “The Inquest” from his short-story collection, More Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Also known in Poland as Test pilota Pirxa, the film was also promoted in the Euro-home video market as The Inquest of Pilot Pirx. The plot concerns a mission to evaluate the use of non-linears (robots) as crews on future space flights. In command of a mixed human and non-linear crew that failed in its mission to launch satellites into Saturn’s rings, which resulted in death, Pirx’s career falls into question. An inquest comes to discover it was not human, but non-linear error that caused the mission failure.

1980—Petlya Oriona (Orion Loop) by Vasily Levin

Russian science fiction joyously traveled back to man’s “inner space” as a mixed crew comprised of humans and their androids twins travel to a phenomenon on the solar system’s outskirts approaching Earth—The Orion Loop. The closer the crew comes into contact, the stranger their psychological issues manifest. The script was co-written by Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov—the first man to complete an EVA (extravehicular activity) during the Voskhod 2 mission; the mission is the subject of a stellar Russian film, 2017’s Spacewalk.

1980— Zvyozdny inspektor (The Star Inspector)by Vladimir Polin and Mark Kovalyov

Produced in the wake of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, but with the awareness of a somewhat older episode of the pre-Star Wars TV series Space: 1999, the commander of a Russian space police unit investigates the criminal dealings of corporate-capitalist space pirates who commit an unmotivated attack on an International Space Base. He comes to discover the attack was committed by a lost group of scientists led by a famed biologist who created an artificial intelligence that, with a robot army, plans to enslave humanity.

1981—Per Aspera Ad Astra (Through Hardship to the Stars) by Richard Viktorov

Carrying a philosophical message regarding the err of corporate greed and war profiteering, the film’s title is from a familiar Latin phrase utilized in the writings of James Joyce, Hermann Hesse, and Kurt Vonnegut. Scripted by Viktorov (1974’s Moskva-Kassiopeya) from the novel of the same name by Kir Bulychov, this Russian film appeared in English-speaking markets as Through the Thorns to the Stars and on American television as Humanoid Woman, itself a disgracefully edited, exploitive title that diminishes the film’s deeper meanings. The story concerns the 23rd century discovery of a lone, female humanoid-clone survivor of a derelict alien vessel. As the clone adapts to life on Earth, it discovers it has a variety of psychic and physical powers—and learns she was part of an advance-army created by government subversives to overthrown her creator’s home planet.

1983—Lunnaya raduga (Moon Rainbow) by Vladmir Karpichev

After encountering a space phenomenon, a squad of Russian space commandos (think Aliens) develops supernatural powers and the philosophical questions arise: what to do with such powers and how will they affect life on Earth. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Sergei Pavlov and presents itself as an insightful version of Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four series—minus the unscientific, childish comic book pretentions.

1984—Vozrashchenie s orbity (Return from Orbit) by Aleksandr Surin

Featuring a production design that reminds of 1978’s Doznanie pilota Pirksa, this dispenses with the Star Wars: Return of the Jedi-inspired sci-fi fantasy of the times for a serious, dramatic approach regarding the daily trials of two cosmonauts adjusting to their new life on Earth after a lengthy mission. When a meteor storm accident occurs on an orbital station, the cosmo-duo must return to space to save their comrades. Unlike most sci-fi films shot on sets, scenes were shot on the Soviet Space Station Salyut 7 and the spacecraft Soyuz T-9 by cosmonauts Vladimir Lyakhov and Aleksandr Aleksandrov. Additional scenes were shot at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center and inside the RKA Mission Control Center. The film’s stellar, ambient soundtrack is conducted by famed Russian electronic conductor, Edward Artemeyev. Gargin’s life was later chronicled in Gagarin: First In Space (2013).

About the Author: You can read the music and film criticisms of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is scheduled to have its world premiere in Los Angeles on December 16, 2019, and will be released theatrically on December 20 in the United States.

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You need more science fiction? Be sure to visit with R.D Francis on his retrospective of Italy’s Star Wars-inspired film industry and the inspirations of George Lucas with the article “In Space No One Can Hear the Pasta Over-Boiling: Alfonso Brescia and the ’80s Italian Spacesploitation Invasion,” on Medium.

Luminosity by R.D Francis—a sci-fi novella homage to the influential and groundbreaking Russian science fiction films of the ‘60s and ’70—is now available as a free eBook exclusively through Smashwords for all eReader platforms.

Banner Image by R.D Francis: “Planet Moon Orbit Solar System” no attribution required image courtesy of LoganArt via Pixabay.com and “Neon One” Text courtesy of PicFont.com.

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