This Soviet science fiction film is a technical achievement on a par with Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman in the Moon and finds the Russian film industry putting more thought (and budget) into a space voyage than Universal were willing to expend on their contemporary Flash Gordon serial. Lang had consulted with German rocket experts like Willy Ney and Werner von Braun to work out the details of their trip to the moon, but director Vasili Zhuravlyov and screenwriter Aleksandr Filmonov go him one better by adapting a book by Russian space travel visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. One of the most impressive aspects of the production is that it simply presents concepts like g-force, weightlessness, space suits (with detachable lead galoshes), multiple-stage rockets and reduced lunar gravity without the kind of patronising explanations that popped up in US space trip movies like Destination: Moon in the 1950s. It’s assumed the viewer will either know about these things, or be smart enough to pick up from what we’re shown without the need for lectures. It’s no more propagandist than the average American s-f film, and only in a positive way (no capitalist villains, as in the 1924 Aelita): there’s an unstressed insistence on female equality as we see boiler-suited women among the space base’s workforce and a heroine who goes to the moon while her boyfriend stays behind and worries (this would have been unthinkable in an American film).
The film’s major appeal is its many miniature effects. If the model construction isn’t quite on a par with Things to Come, the film technique is often more imaginative than the British super-production: a long tracking shot winds through the vast hangar where the big spaceships have been constructed and looks at the vessels from every angle (this sort of thing wouldn’t be common in Western films until the Star Trek movies), a vast and elegant space-port looks forward to the rocket bases of Gerry Anderson’s TV shows, stop-motion astronauts bounce around the deep mesas of the moon, lunar voyagers do wirework aerobatics inside their well-appointed (and upholstered) capsule. A paradox typical of Soviet filmmaking (and rocketry, come to that) is that some technical aspects are much more advanced than contemporary American standards (if only because Russian studios took s-f more seriously than Hollywood and were prepared to spend the money no American producer of the 1930s would have frittered on Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers) but others are surprisingly primitive (this is still a silent film with subtitles – I’d guess because the Soviet Union probably still had many cinemas unconverted for sound, and something as ambitious as this would need to play in them).
Set in 1946 – when the Soviet system is slickly utopian, with art deco décor and a general mood of good cheer and harmonious achievement – it has sub-titles in the novelistic past tense, as if this were a record of a future incident. As in much Soviet s-f, there are no real baddies here – not even the sort of ‘foreign spies’ who clutter up the first act of Destination: Moon – just obstacles to be overcome. Visionary Professor Pavel Ivanovich Sedykh (Sergei Komarov) has designed and supervised the construction of the two big spaceships, named the Stalin (of course) and the Voroshilov. Sedykh wants to be first to fly to the moon, but Professor Karin (Vasili Kovrigin) is against it because he has shot a rabbit into space in an experimental craft and the animal’s heart exploded 100,000 miles from Earth. Some commentators see Karin’s attempts to thwart the hero as a subversive critique of Soviet bureaucracy, but Karin is fair-minded if wrong in his opposition, concerned for the old man’s health rather than against space travel per se. The bearded, eccentric, tempestuous Sedykh and the prissy, stuffy Karin might be derived from Conan Doyle’s Professors Challenger and Summerlee in The Lost World – like those boffins, the Russian characters reconcile at the end, and Karin is happy to be proved wrong.
For such a major, labour-intensive project, the moon trip is casually embarked upon. While Karin tries to stop Sedykh, he impulsively asks Karin’s secretary Marina (K. Mosalenko) to come along on the trip – and his old babushka wife is more worried that he’s forgotten to pack his boots than that he’s picked a pretty young girl as co-pilot (this is a sure sign that the film was aimed at healthy-minded juveniles rather than modern cynics). Andriocha (Vassili Gaponenko), the Boy Scoutish nephew of Marina’s sidelined boyfriend Victor (Nicolai Feokistov), hero-worhsips the Professor, and worms his way aboard the ship, cheered on by his troupe of pals (this Tintin-type viewpoint character further marks the movie out as a Boys’ Own story). For take-off, the astronauts sit in tanks of ‘special liquid’ to counter the stress – this is an idea which was dropped for practical space travel, though it’s generally the same idea as the liquid oxygen breathed in the deeps in The Abyss and also looks something like the tubes employed on the saucer in This Island Earth. On the moon, the three astronauts put up a flag, have a crisis about a damaged ‘oxygen-generator’ solved by the discovery of frozen but recyclable remnants of the moon’s lost atmosphere, and rescue a healthy cat Karin shot off into space earlier. Sedykh is trapped under a rockfall, and has to use the kid’s space-age peashooter to attract his comrades – who, in another nice bit of applied science, are able to lift rocks which would have been too heavy for them on Earth. Using luminous dust, the expedition spells out ‘CCCP’ on the moon, so it is visible to Earth telescopes – and they return, parachuting down onto the forecourt of the space base, in triumph. Hooray.