After Nebo Zovyot/The Call of the Heavens, director-writer Mikhail Kariukov delivered another interplanetary voyage, with similarly idealistic purpose. In the earlier film, a heroic Soviet crew abandoned their Mars mission in order to rescue some foolish American astronauts who had tried to get there first – here, a similar bunch of decent, co-operating, collaborative Russians go to Mars to rescue crashed cosmonauts from another star system (Centuria). Like Nebo Zovyot, it’s all a dream but the frame story is set in the future and introduces the characters who appear in the story in their actual jobs at a super-scientific utopian community, suggesting Russian cinema remained curiously timid about its sf vision. It’s also oddly curtailed at 66 minutes, slathered over with a narration that keeps introducing people, explaining things and filling in gaps that aren’t dramatised – the film doesn’t seem to be a cut-down, but it does feel like something that was once going to be longer and has been rethought in production. The elaborate, imaginative sets and space hardware scenes – familiar from Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood – are plainly ambitious, but the story is hurried through. Again, there’s a gentler Cold War aspect in that ‘Dr Laungton’ (Nikolai Volkov), who isn’t specifically identified as an American, theorises that any species we might encounter from outer space is liable to be hostile and exploitative, like the European imperialists who ravaged Africa, while the Russians believe in interstellar comradeship and decency.
Cosmonaut Andrei (Boris Borisenko), the dreamer, also writes songs (this is almost a science fiction musical). His ditty ‘And Apple Trees Will Blossom on Mars’ wafts out into the universe (and from a compact-like futuristic portable radio) and is heard on Centuria, a human civilisation which looks a little like the Metaluna of This Island Earth (but maybe also to Russian eyes the Mars of Aelita). The Centurians send a ship to visit Earth, but all that arrives is a little distress beacon after they crash on Mars. Accompanied by another stirring song (‘I Am Earth’), the personnel of the international space base begin a rescue mission (all the cosmonauts have CCCP on their helmets, though the scientific set-up seems to have some sort of UN charter). From a base on the Moon, the Russians launch the spaceship Ocean, crewed by the idealistic, moustached Commander (Peter Shmakov), Andrei’s girlfriend Tanya (Laris Gordeichik) and chess-playing joker Paul (A Genesin). Of all these grinning, heroic stereotypes, Paul comes the nearest to having a character: he has ideas about cosying up to alien women and is disappointed there won’t be enough water on Mars to make a cocktail (why Andrei, in his imagination, coops up his fiancee with lady-killer Paul is one of those unanswered questions). In a pre-2001 sequence, there’s an evocation of the mild boredom of a long spaceflight, with Paul slightly fed up that no one wants to play chess with him.
On Mars, there’s melodrama in precis. Cosmonauts explore the crashed Centurian ship and one dead alien (a scene which slightly prefigures Planet of the Vampires and even Alien), but wonder where the other two Centurian crew-members are. The Ocean has also not got enough fuel and is stranded, prompting the hasty launch of another ship, crewed by Ivan (Otar Koberidze) and Andrei, which hasn’t the muscle to get to Mars but can land on Martian moon Phobos. There, the alien woman (T Pochepa) is found unconscious in an escape pod – the third Centurian is dropped completely from the story, suggesting ripped-put script pages – and Andrei has to volunteer to stay behind and sacrifice himself so Ivan can get the alien ambassadress (who evidently comes round, but never says anythign) to Mars and the Ocean with enough fuel for them to go home (sf writer Paul McAuley observed that in a Soviet version of the classic sf story ‘The Cold Equations’, the crew would all try to volunteer to be the one thrown out the airlock to save the rest). In a nice, understated moment, Ivan shows that he accepts Andrei’s reasoning that he’s less qualified to pilot the ship and should therefore die on Phobos simply by lowering the faceplate of his spacesuit. The climax, before Tanya has a tearful breakdown which segues back into the frame story, is a broadcast to Earth (on huge telescreens) in which the crew introduce the alien woman and mock Laungton for his theory that she would be evil – though the film has given no real evidence that she’s friendly (Harrington would make the equivalent character a vampire). Then it’s back to paddling in the Black Sea and another chorus of ‘And Apple Trees Will Blossom on Mars’ as the Earth looks to the skies with hope rather than the terror of the last scene of The Thing From Another World.