Top 10 Soviet Science Fiction Movies

Here is my Top 10 Soviet sci-fi movies with a dozen of modern trailers I made specially for it while studying some video editing.

†1924-1988 selection.

Beautiful new ambient, shoegaze, dreampop, synthpop and techno soundtracks included.

 

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1. ”Stalker”, 1979.

A cerebral timeless masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, probably the most renowned and influential Soviet/Russian director. Loosely based on a story by important Soviet science fiction writers Strugatsky brothers (and seen by many as a prophecy for several upcoming catastrophes including Chernobyl), “Stalker” could be interpreted as a philosophical tale about destiny and choices. But there’s much more that that. It’s simply one of the most important cinema achievements ever, let alone science fiction. The story follows three men as they penetrate deeper into into a mysterious area called “The Zone”, each of them for a different purpose. A thinking sci-fi geek’s must-see. This movie is like a Universe, there are always new layers to discover. Read more here and here.

Music by Bowery Electric.

2. ”City Zero”, 1988.

Theatre of the absurd, a mysterious tragicomedy, a dark metaphor. The late 80-s, without doubt, were the most prolific period for the underground culture in Soviet Union, especially rock music but also cinema. ”City Zero” is the finest dark offspring of that epoch. The film is normally classified as sci-fi/mystery – but if you analyze every single scene separately, there’s nothing completely impossible. It’s the sum of all parts that is greater than the whole… The famous headcake scene actually happened once in Russia. But looking at the whole story makes you feel like slowly drowning in the swamp… It’s kind of ”Donnie Darko” goes on ”Mulholland Drive” in ”The Twilight Zone” atmosphere. My full review here. Watch online here.

Music by Auktyon (Аукцыон).

3. ”Dead Man’s Letters”, 1986.

Directed by K. Lopushansky, surely the most faithful of all Tarkovsky’s followers (he worked as assistant on ”Stalker” set), this film is a heavy and realistic portrayal of the end of the world. Endless piles of rusty metal, interminable yellow twilight, dirty radioactive puddles of mixed water and blood. And dead bodies. Dead bodies everywhere. Men, children, women. Everywhere. There is no hope here. It’s finished. There is no ”if”. The doomsday clock has moved. We are just witnessing the final decay of small group of survivors that will last several months, probably. There is not even a single hint about their survival. It’s a death rattle. Just a matter of time. My full review here. Watch online here.

Music by Ital Tek.

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Tarkovsky / posters

“And so, what is a film? It’s a mosaic made of time.” (A. Tarkovsky)

 

Dreamy and poignant posters for several films of the great Russian director, by Curzon Artificial Eye. These are definitely most beautiful posters of his works I have ever seen (including probably the original posters)  as they reflect carefully the poetic nature of these films, which continue to influence modern filmmakers, such as Dennis Vileneuve who directed the best science fiction movie of 2016, ”Arrival”.

And probably will make the best sci-fi of 2017. And who is currently working on Blade Runner 2049.

 

Jonas Mekas / Vladimir Kobrin / Wire / surrealist cinema

Surrealism and absurdism have always captivated me, they slice the reality as we know it and perform its autopsy, opening unseen layers… But first things first. Here is my new video on of the best post-punk/new wave songs ever by the British band Wire, 1979. The clip is composed of 2 works by great surrealist directors Jonas Mekas (born in 1922, Lithuania/USA) and Vladimir Kobrin (born in 1942, USSR).

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THX 1138

thx1138Director: George Lucas. Starring:Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie, Don Pedro Colley. Budget: $777,777. Box office: $2.4 mln. USA, 1971. IMDb: 6.8. My rating: 3/4. Disturbing art-house dystopia at its finest.

– Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.
(OMM, the digital Jesus)

– I think I’m dying.
– Could you be more specific?
(THX 1138’s confession to OMM, the digital Jesus)

– Everything will be all right; we are here to help you. Stay calm. We are not going to harm you. Everything will be all right.
(chrome police robots)

 

First part and more GIFs about the numbers in ”THX 1138” here.

”THX 1138” is an impressive, visionary and visually striking science fiction movie that I found fucking boring but absolutely loved at the same time. It may be a pain in the ass to watch because it’s so desperately monotonous and emotionally deadened – but that was the aim of the film too.

But once you get through it… your suffering will be rewarded. You may even want to rewatch it over time. It’s still one of the best dystopias around (and almost 50 years passed since its release).

Besides of the visuals, ”THX 1138” has an incredible amount of cultural references and just that may make it worth a watch. Steel-faced chrome police robots (lets call them, uhm, T100?), futuristic car chases (long before George Miller touched his camera), Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor’s sampling source, dystopian underground drug-controlled society, infinite white prison with no walls (remember the Matrix endless gun warehouse scene?), early Star Wars designs, weird silent surveillance footage, erotic hologram dance, tape-recorded Jesus… A long and extensive analysis could be done on this movie.

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Discovering the depths of tape-recorded digital religion.

It’s inevitable to mention George Lucas’ persona when discussing “THX-1138”. The man was known for his little love in directing the movies, that’s why after doing this, “American Graffiti” (a coming-of-age cult film which I haven’t seen, but 7.5 IMDb and 95% RT may actually mean it’s worth something!) and the first “Star Wars” movie he stepped out of the director’s seat for 22 years, only to direct the dubious “Star Wars” prequels, which for the most part are not considered as good as the original trilogy. Anyway. I’m not a huge fan of Star Wars, although I’ve watched them multiple times and enjoyed it.

In short, “THX 1138” is everything that “Star Wars” is not. It is was the art-house face of George Lucas. Ultra slow, depressive and without even a hint of being funny. But its influence on the visuals of the latter is significant. Many of design solutions, like dominating sterile colours contrasted with black and white uniforms, holograms and other futuristic elements.

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This is not your average Interceptor.

What’s wrong with the The Director’s Cut. Oh, these freaking DC… It was released in 2004 and sadly it confirms that – with the exception of barely few scenes – Lucas lost the understanding of his own movie. He used the same approach as in Star Wars prequels with too much CGI out of place, thus many scenes were needlessly modified with new graphics, the corridors were extended (why, George? Why do we need extended corridors?) and extra space and colours added. Here‘s the full comparison and additional info here too. Several GIFs below (this may look fine out of context though):

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Copy-pasted humans and extended corridors of the infamous Director’s Cut.

Few words about the acting. Robert Duvall (born in 1931) is an interesting guy. He reminds me of Harry Dean Stanton (born in 1926), an incredibly talented American actor, who has made about 100 movies since 1956, including such titles as ”Alien”, ”Repo Man”, three David Lynch’s movies, ”Escape From New York”, ”Paris, Texas” and a literally lots of other stuff, yet the man never became a big star, staying in the shade of his colleagues.

So what has Stanton to do with Duvall? Well, both are those type of actors that we all have probably seen dozens of times (”MASH”, ”Deep Impact”, ”The Godfather 1/2”, ”Falling Down”) but struggle to recognize. So while Duvall certainly got more notoriety over the decades and received some important awards, his fate is somewhat similar compared to the Hollywood’s major stars and he is often overlooked. In ”THX 1138”, the man creates a wonderful and powerful performance, that ranges from emotional overload and despair to escapism, protest and silent consent. A very versatile role indeed.

Donald Pleasence (Carpenter’s ”Halloween”, Polanski’s ”Cul-de-sac”) was also wonderful as a psychotic and neurotic dweller of this huge underground world hospital. His characters was more one-sided than Duvall’s and that was a good contrast.

Maggie McOmie’s role as LUH felt a little bit underdeveloped given that it was her character that gave THX 1138 (the person, not the film!) a major input… She did not pursue an acting career after finishing ”THX 1138”.

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Worth watching? ”THX 1138” may seem overly slow and artsy at a glance, but nevertheless it’s a visually striking and original dystopia with various elements to be found in many forthcoming science fiction movies of all kinds. Wonderful performances from Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence, gorgeously sterile visuals, story’s depth and a well-developed deadened underground world prove that there were times when George Lucas was as a talented and original filmmaker. 

Watch also: dystopia is a good genre for experimenting and many filmmakers used that to create something unorthodox, like amazing ”A Boy and His Dog”, poetic ”Fahrenheit 451” or absurd Soviet masterpieces”Kin-Dza-Dza!” and ”City Zero”.

3/4

Augmented reality. Day 11. ”La Jetée”

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”La Jetée” (1962) is a very unusual project. It is…

…a photo novel  – a science fiction short film made almost entirely in still photographs. 29 minutes of brain-penetrating painful stills.

…a dystopian science fiction movie made by Chris Marker, a French director whose career spanned for 5 decades and his most notable work were documentary essays, not feature films – let alone science fiction. Yet ”La Jetée” was interconnected with his later works in terms of the spirit.

…incredibly long-lived for a film with such an unusual form – no action, no stars and no actual video – that directly inspired one of the best Terry Gilliam’s films ”12 Monkeys”. Yes, the time when Hollywood still had the guts of making these kind of weird ‘remakes’.

…a grim philosophical story about human perception of things and memory, madness, love, time interchangeability and bleakness.

”The victors stood guard over an empire of rats.”

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Resolution

Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead. Starring: Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, Bill Oberst Jr, Zahn McClarnon. USA, 2012. IMDB: 6.2. My rating: 4/4. Meditation about horror.

– You know why Jimi Hendrix died? He didn’t have Mike Danube and a set of handcuffs to save his life.
(Mike Danube to Chris)

”Resolution”, surprisingly, is more a movie about horror genre than being a horror itself. Just like if ”Cabin in the Woods” met David Lynch.

A directional debut by two young filmmakers, ”Resolution” tries to refresh the old genre and succeeds, being both a great story and a contemplation about the horror, cinema and itself as well. It is not pretentious though, but fun to watch, thrilling, tense and spectacular – even if you don’t care that much about its meditation about the genre. 

resolution

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Parade of the Planets

parad planetDirector: Vadim Abdrashitov. Writer: Aleksandr Mindadze. Starring: Oleg Borisov, Sergey Shakurov, Sergey Nikonenko, Liliya Gritsenko, Aleksandr Pashutin, Pyotr Zaychenko. USSR, 1984. IMDb: 7.2. My rating: 3.5/4. A surreal metaphor about the end of an era, generations and human fate.

– I was a good student. And all good students dreamt to be astronomers. Discover new stars. But all stars have already been discovered…
(conversation between main characters)

– I was a butcher, I was…
– And now?
– And now I’m a spirit.
(conversation between main characters)

“Parade of the Planets” gives you an illusory airy, gauzy feeling. It’s woven of a light and some invisible matter – hard to catch, yet impossible not to feel. It’s late in the afternoon, the sky is still crystal, but you feel the air is thicker, there’s a sense of doom all around… the thunder is coming. The storm that will wash away everything. We won’t even see it, probably, but the feeling itself is overwhelming. Continue reading

City Zero (Zerograd)

zero-cityDirector: Karen Shakhnazarov. Starring: Leonid Filatov, Oleg Basilashvili, Vladimir Menshov, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, Evgeniy Evstigneev. USSR, 1988. IMDb: 7.6. My rating: 4/4. Theatre of the absurd, mysterious tragicomedy & black metaphor.

– I need one first class ticket to Moscow.
– There are no tickets.
– I don’t care which one,
first or second class…
– I have neither of them.
– Where is the manager of the station?
– The manager won’t help.
(a dialogue between the train ticket seller and the main character)

20170614_070542It’s called a silent hysteria. The late 80-s, without doubt, were the most prolific period for the underground culture in Soviet Union, especially for the rock music, when so many original bands appeared whose heritage is still relevant today. But mostly they were still prohibited, while the the cinema was changing… ”Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important”, as Lenin once said. The censorship became less strict – occasional nudity, freethinking or just weird stuff were allowed.

”City Zero” is the finest dark offspring of that epoch. It wasn’t appreciated by the masses at that time (which is not a good symptom by itself, given that in large part the movie is about crowd manipulation as well…), being an intellectual, allegoric and metaphoric dark tale. It was the 4th feature film by Karen Shakhnazarov, already a successful and experienced director, and he managed to capture the spirit of the falling empire in this theatre of the absurd. As he admitted later, portraying the Perestroika and fall of the USSR wasn’t his priority, but the film outgrew the original intention of the director.

What’s most remarkable, “City Zero” is normally classified and sci-fi/mystery – and if you analyze every single scene separately, there’s nothing completely impossible. The famous cake scene actually happened once. But looking at the whole story makes you feel like slowly drowning in the swamp… It’s kind of ”Donnie Darko” goes on ”Mullholland Drive” in ”The Twilight Zone” atmosphere.

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The Man from Earth

man_from_earthDirector: Richard Schenkman. Starring: David Lee Smith, John Billingsley, Tony Todd, Ellen Crawford, Annika Peterson, William Katt, Alexis Thorpe, Richard Riehle. USA, 2007. Budget: $200,000. IMDB: 8.0. My rating 4/4. Intellectual imaginative dialogue-based science fiction.

– There is absolutely no way in the whole world for John to prove this story to us. Just like there’s no way for us to disprove it.
(one of the film main characters)

– I am going home and watch Star Trek for a dose of sanity.
(one of the film main characters)

It’s often said that a good science fiction should in first place activate our imagination and not rely merely on being a visual stimulator. “The Man from Earth” is a minimal dialogue-based intellectual science fiction at its best. But it will provide you with more fantasy, drama, thoughtful remarks about biology, religion and psychology than you could expect from a film shot almost entirely in one house with zero action or special effects for $200,000. Continue reading

The Machine

f04c6c2af663d16125acc53ff0ea71e9.jpgDirector: James W. Caradog. Starring: Caity Lotz, Toby Stephens, Denis Lawson, Pooneh Hajimohammadi, Sam Hazeldine. UK, 2013. Budget: $1 million. IMDb: 6.1. My rating: 3.5/4. Noir cyberpunk tale about the border between humans and A. I.

– How do I know that you’re alive and not just a clever imitation of life?
(one of the main scientists)

”The Machine” beats the recent ”Ghost in the Shell” adaptation with an incredible ease. If it were done in the 80-s, it would have been a cult movie. But it’s a 2013 directional debut by the Welsh director James W. Caradog, so let’s just be humble and categorize it as… almost excellent.  Continue reading