(aka, Russian Road to the Stars)
Great accomplishments in film never stand on their own.
Take for example Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey:
It stunned audiences of its day, giving them an incredible glimpse of our solar system and the future of space travel, with a level of detail, scientific accuracy and believability never seen before on the silver screen.
And yet it wasn’t an isolated, freakish, entirely new thing, but was inspired by the work of other pioneers: by the Canadian short documentary film Universe; by the three episodes of Walt Disney’s Disneyland TV serieshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_in_Space featuring Werner von Braun’s vision of manned spaceflight; by the incredible Cinerama 360 short film from the 1964 World’s Fair, To the Moon and Beyond; and by a Soviet documentary which wasn’t seen much in this country, Road to the Stars.
As I commented at greater length in my post about The Mystery of the Two Oceans, the Soviet film industry stopped making science fiction films for nearly twenty years following the release of their epic space film, Cosmic Race in 1936. The regime had turned its attention to the realistic and down-to-Earth, and produced a lot of films portraying a romanticized version of the rugged life of the common people. They weren’t interested in anything as unrealistic as space flight, although, starting with a 1953 animated children’s film, science fiction gradually made its way back into the Soviet cinema.
It helped that Sputnik was launched in 1957 — and perhaps, almost as much, that Stalin died in 1953. However, you can’t ignore another major influence: Pavel Kushlantsev and his series of documentary films, like Meteorites and Universe.
Like the Disney films, Pavel combined a lot of intriguing information about space and space exploration with some incredible special effects. This series of documentaries started with Meteorites in 1944 and culminated in his classic, Road to the Stars (although he would make several other nearly as impressive documentaries — like Luna — later).
A series of new science fiction films followed in Road to the Stars’ wake, including such films as Mechte Navstrechu and Nebo Sovyot. Five years later, Klushantsev himself made a science fiction film — his only narrative film — which is perhaps the greatest film of this middle period of soviet science fiction cinema, Planet of Storms.
Road to the Stars starts out with a beautiful sequence on the legendary Russian rocket pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, in which he teaches his ideas to the young children who were the only ones willing to listen to him.
But once Tsiolkovsky has explained the basics of spaceflight, the second half of the film takes us to the near future, as Soviet engineers plan to launch the first manned spaceflight.
A massive space program follows, leading to the construction of a manned space station and finally a trip to the Moon — but only after we get tantalizing glimpses of trips to Mars and even Venus.
Perhaps the most curious detail here is that the space station carries out most of the things our modern space program is doing — from weather forecasts to astronomy — but it does so with large numbers of people aboard the station, whether plotting weather patterns, peering through telescopes, or acting as operators for all the thousands of phone calls going through the station. It’s an odd combination of fanciful high tech with a remarkably mundane view of life in the stars.
But there’s nothing strange about the spaceships (except perhaps for the curious fact that the crew module lands back on Earth on a hydro ski!), or the model work. They are extremely well-made, some of the best effects of the Fifties, whether in the Soviet Union or anywhere else. They look slightly toy like and remind me a bit of Derek Meddings’ work on all those Gerry Anderson shows. The designs are different from what we’d normally expect in a Fifties space film and they do not look much like Chesley Bonestell‘s familiar designs. Nor do they look much like a V-2, even if they share some of its complex curves (something real rockets quickly lost as straight, pipe-like fuselages are far easier to build and actually work better).
I’ll confess I’m just a little amused by the long spikes on noses of all these rockets. This is a detail you’ll find in a lot of Fifties spaceships, but the truth is that such a spike would burn up on take-off because it has so much surface area. That’s why you see blunt, slightly-rounded noses on modern rockets.
Road to the Stars is a lovely film. It is entertaining and non-preachy, presenting Tsiolkovsky in a way that appeals to children, while teaching us a lot about gravity, orbits and, yes, even space ships and space travel.
It seems a shame Pavel Klushantsev would only make one science fiction film — and perhaps more of a shame that it is somewhat dry even in its most Corman-ized form (or perhaps even more so!).
At least as far as American audiences are concerned, of course.
But Road to the Stars is a forgotten classic, and worth seeing for anyone who loves Fifties science fiction — or spaceflight and science documentaries…