Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Space Month Quick Picks and Pans


Aniara (2018) In the near(ish) future, Earth has suffered one ecological disaster after another, prompting a mass exodus to Mars. A massive luxury spaceship (with an interior that seems to have been designed by Ikea) ferrying a group of would-be colonists embarks on its three-week journey to Mars. Disaster strikes, however, when an emergency course correction results in a breach in the ship’s reactor, forcing the craft to dump its nuclear fuel to prevent another catastrophe. The change in direction sends the giant spacecraft hurtling in the wrong direction, without the means to turn around. The rest of the film follows the passengers and crew over the next several years, as they vacillate between hope and despair, attempting to comprehend their new reality on a voyage without end. This thoughtful Swedish science fiction film from writer/directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja is a darkly existential science fiction with a fatalistic streak (Director Claire Denis explored similar themes in High Life, released the same year). It’s thought-provoking stuff, but undeniably bleak. Warning: you might need a hug after watching this.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu

Cosmic Voyage (aka: Cosmic Journey) (1936) This fun silent Soviet film from director Vasily Zhuravlyov balances hard science with whimsical adventures. Set in the near future of 1946, a determined inventor (Sergey Komarov) plans a journey to Earth’s satellite in his giant rocket. Despite efforts from his detractors to derail the mission, he travels to the moon with his assistant (Ksenia Moskalenko) and an eager boy scout (or the Russian equivalent) in tow. They encounter weightlessness along the way, and explore the rocky lunar surface. Cosmic Voyage features some impressive visuals (including stop-motion animation to depict their lunar adventures), which rival the imagery in Things to Come (also from 1936). It’s a thoroughly charming excursion, which never takes itself too seriously. Good fun.  

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and YouTube

Prospect (2018) Writer/directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s space western starts as a tale of survival and greed, but morphs into something more. Damon and Cee (Jay Duplass and Sophie Thatcher), a father and daughter prospector team, land on a forest moon, and must contend with toxic dust and hostile competitors, also looking to strike it rich. When he meets his untimely demise, Cee must survive on her own, forming an uneasy alliance with Ezra (Pedro Pascal of The Mandalorian fame) an enigmatic, soft-spoken prospector. Prospect does a lot on a small budget (reportedly in the neighborhood of $3 million), with good use of location shots (filmed in in Washington State’s Hoh rainforest) and some decent CGI (used sparingly). The performances, especially by Thatcher and Pascal, are uniformly solid. At its heart, it’s a simple tale that reminds us that people are not always who they seem to be, and companionship can come from the unlikeliest of places.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Hulu and Kanopy

In the Dust of the Stars (aka: Im Staub der Sterne) (1976) This groovy offering from East Germany’s DEFA Studios needs to be seen to be believed. Cosmonauts respond to a distress signal, but when they arrive on the planet TEM 4, their host denies anything’s wrong. He does his best to distract the puzzled space travelers (with funky, drug-filled parties and interpretive dancing) to hasten their departure, although one crewmember suspects their minds have been tampered with. This would be a great midnight movie candidate thanks to the plethora of weird hairstyles and bizarre costumes, some (ahem) interesting dance moves, and a cartoonishly evil leader (who looks like a dead ringer for Airplane’s Stephen Stucker). Pacing issues bog the movie down a bit, but it’s worth a look just to see how wacky movies could get behind the Iron Curtain.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Out of print) and Kanopy


Supernova (2000) This space obtusity suffers from an identity crisis. Is it an action thriller, a space-based romance, a brooding character study, or a cerebral science fiction tale? The infamously troubled production (director Walter Hill was fired, and credited as Thomas Lee) juggles all of these elements, but handles none of them well. A sociopathic survivor from a mining outpost brings a glowing whatsit that might be the end to humanity onboard a deep-space rescue ship. The movie never fully explores the ramifications of the alien artifact. Instead, it spends most of its time with a predictable cat and mouse plot and trying to make us believe that James Spader and Angela Bassett (both dependable actors) are attracted to each other. The lack of chemistry between the leads is just endemic of the rest of the cast and filmmakers, who just seem to be going through the motions.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Queen of Outer Space (1958) A rocket ship’s planned rendezvous with a space station is thwarted when the station is annihilated by a death ray. To avoid certain destruction, the crew (clad in costumes pilfered from Forbidden Planet) divert their rocket ship and crash land on Venus, where they encounter a civilization ruled by women. Based on the sexist attitudes and behavior of the astronauts, it’s easy to see why Venusian society shunned men. Inexplicably, many of the Venusians find them irresistible. There’s kitsch appeal, thanks to the goofy plot and the casting of Zsa Zsa Gabor as the leader of a revolt, but that only takes you so far. Technicolor and Cinemascope can’t save this one from being a groan-worth bore. You’re better off watching one of the many genuine genre classics from the era (take your pick).

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.



War Between the Planets (aka: Il Pianeta Errante) (1966) Catastrophes on Earth are linked to a rogue planet that’s flying through the solar system, creating a destructive “wind” in the vacuum of space (don’t break your brain trying to make sense of it). The insipid narration doesn’t do this movie any favors, and far too much celluloid is wasted on a dull love triangle with an uncharismatic lead, played by Giacomo Rossi Stuart (although his hair is quite a special effect). At virtually the last minute, when a team of astronauts attempt to destroy the alien planet, they discover that it’s a vast living thing. Sadly, this admittedly intriguing concept is never fully explored. Instead, we’re tormented by more drama between characters we don’t care about.

Rating: **. Available on Amazon Prime and Tubi


Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) Here’s another entry in the curious lost-civilization-of-outer-space-Amazons sub-genre. This time four men and a woman embark on a perilous voyage to the moon. Once they’re in space, navigator Helen Salinger (Marie Windsor) somehow finds time to pull out her hairbrush and a compact. She’s stuck in the middle of a love triangle between the gruff commander and a trigger-happy astronaut, who believes in shooting first (with a revolver that has unlimited ammunition) and forgetting to ask questions later. Meanwhile, her mind is controlled by a society of moon women in black leotards. They exert their feminine whiles to influence the other crew members so they can steal the Earth ship and take over the planet. It’s one small step for space movies, one giant leap backward for positive women’s roles. Don’t bother.

Rating: *½. Available on DVD and Tubi


  1. Excellent work, Barry, as usual. I keep forgetting that East Germany also had a film industry. You just never hear anyone talk about it. Russian Boy Scouts at that time were known as Young Pioneers. Be Well.

    1. Thank, Ernie! I think there's something for everyone in this batch of films. "Young Pioneers," eh? I learned something new today! ;)

  2. Another great eclectic collection, Barry!
    Your review of Supernova is spot on, but it's the last three films that intrigue me, even though they sound completely painful!

    1. Thanks, John! I had fun with this month's films (well, most of them anyway). Queen of Outer Space has some definite kitsch appeal, if nothing else. War of the Planets and "Cat Women" are abysmal. Watch at your own risk...of falling asleep. :)

  3. Like John, I'm going to seek those first three films. I'm always interested in foreign sf projects. Queen of Outer Space is just soooo sexist, I can't find it laughable, just deeply unbelievable,

    Instead, I'd like to recommend Mechte Navstrechu (A Dream Come True), which used to be on YouTube, that is the source of material used in Queen of Blood.

    1. I wholeheartedly endorse the first three films. I agree with you about Queen of Outer Space. Most of it is cringe-worthy (the same could be said for Cat Women of the Moon, which belongs on the bottom of the list for a reason).

      Thanks for the recommendation! This one's new to me.