Croisières sidérales [Sideral Cruises] (1942)

This is a movie based on Einstein’s theory of relativity.

That isn’t necessarily a good thing.

On the first test flight of a high altitude balloon, the comedy relief tries to hide the fact that he’s smoking and ends up sending the balloon rocketing far into space at incredible speeds.  When it returns, the two hapless travelers discover that while only a few days have passed for them, twenty-five years have passed on Earth.

Naturally, this inspires one of the other characters to launch a series of cruises, where you can skip ahead a few years while remaining young.  And, of course, that means you have to package it all with an incredible, Busby Berkeley station, staffed by oodles of beautiful girls in chorus girl outfits (and a big production number)…

Words fail me.  This is a very strange little film.  You hear about it once in a while (Phil Hardy mentions it in the Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction) as one of those holy grails of SF film – the oddity that no one has seen for so long it barely seems real.

It was made during the Occupation of France during World War II, and like a lot of the films made during that era, seems to be little more than entertainment with no political commentary, overt or covert.  Ironically, for such a frothy cinematic confection, its director did get in trouble because he chose to feature the theories of a Jewish scientist.

The film actually starts with a title card informing us that the film was, in fact, based on real, scientific theories, even if they took a few liberties with speed and distance.  It is somewhat refreshing when someone indulges in a bit of full disclosure, although a “few liberties” does seem a tad bit understated.

While most references to the film mention its time-crossed romance and little else, a surprisingly large part of the film details the misadventures of the first official cruise and the eccentric cast of characters onboard, including a brief weightless sequence and an unscheduled trip to Venus.

Venus turns out to be an Anarchist’s dream paradise, where everyone just hangs out being happy, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a political commentary.  However, when they leave, the final thought about human nature here on Earth has a wry humor that seems very much a product of the times.  Not that it gave the occupation government much to complain about.

One of the ironies here is that, while the film does make a few minimal attempts to visualize a world twenty-five years in the future (I like the “old” car that gives them a lift from the crash site:  it looks like one of those old tin-toy versions of the streamlined car of the future, complete with fin on the back, that was stamped from a single piece of metal.  They probably made the prop the same way), nothing much has changed when they return after thirty years.  Even the Busby Berkeley spectacle is still going strong, despite the fact that their first cruise still hasn’t returned!

It isn’t quite as much fun as it sounds, although it does have a few interesting moments.  More than anything else, it reminds me of Just Imagine, the first SF film musical, which despite its excellent production values has little to recommend it beyond its novelty value (and a certain naive charm).

Croisières sidérales is mostly interesting as a historical oddity: one of the few SF films made during the Forties, one of the few SF films made in France prior to the New Wave, and probably the first fictional representation of Einstein’s theories on film.

 

 

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