Mosfilm: Cosmic Voyage (1936) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Mosfilm

At the tail end of the silent era in the Soviet Union came the brief dawn of a new kind of futuristic science-fiction with the release of the Mosfilm production Cosmic Voyage, one of the first films to ever depict weightlessness in outer space and realistic imaginings of modern space travel.  Originating in 1924 but not going into production until 1932 with Komsomol the Communist Union of Youth suggested it might boost curiosity in the prospect of space flight, the film came right on the heels of William Cameron Menzies’ equally prescient and visionary H.G. Wells penned Things to Come.  Due to its immediate censorship in Russia over going against the spirit of ‘socialist realism’ vanished for almost another fifty years before resurfacing sometime in the 1980s.  Only in recent years thanks to ongoing efforts of Mosfilm to restore and preserve their library of films have works as technically proficient and innovative as Cosmic Voyage have their fair handshake with Western science-fiction film lovers.

Set in 1946, the Soviet Russian space program is in flux with the aged Professor Pavel Sedikh (Sergei Komarov) slated to lead a space flight crew on an expedition to the Moon is deemed too old and psychologically unfit for the mission.  Against the wishes of arch-rival Professor Karin (Vasili Kovrigin) who is Sedikh’s most vocal opponent, Sedikh presses on ahead anyway with the help of his assistant Marina (Ksenia Moskalenko) and a young stowaway named Andryusha (Vassili Gaponenko).  Making a successful launch, flight and landing on the moon, dealing with all of the newfound problems of zero-gravity and a lack of breathable oxygen or body warmth in below-zero space, their mission is complicated and becomes a rescue operation when the beloved Professor Sedikh slips and falls down into a crevasse and is trapped under a boulder as his oxygen runs out.

Co-written by Aleksandr Filimonov with the insight of aeronautical theorist and rocket science engineer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to tragically passed away shortly after production wrapped, Cosmic Voyage is a feast for the eyes when the special effects miniatures come into play with intricate and meticulous stop-motion animated sequences that dazzle and defy the senses.  Oddly a case where the special effects sequences of stop-motion and monofilament wires were used to simulate zero-gravity inside the spaceship or on the lunar surface became a point of contention for the censors, the scenes now are some of the most technically innovative and exciting visual manifestations to be unleashed on a then-1930s filmgoing public. 

With arresting 1.33:1 black-and-white cinematography by Aleksandr Galperin of Fodor Krasne’s miniatures and special-effects wizardry and stunning art-direction of the interior of the spacecraft as well as the lunar surface imagined by Yuri Shvets, M. Tiunov and Aleksei Utkin, Cosmic Voyage while admittedly light on drama or characterization is full of visual wonderment and fantasy science-fiction worldbuilding.  Performances by the ensemble cast with Sergey Komarov as the elderly but determined Professor Sedikh, buried under old man makeup, are generally good.  Ksenia Moskalenko as Marina the Professor’s most trusted comrade gives off a Brigitte Helm vibe with her eyes and demeanor.  Special attention goes to Vassili Gaponenko as the young stowaway Andryusha though in all honesty the special effects team are the real stars of this magic show.

Taken out of circulation almost immediately upon release before the iron grip loosened on the film’s availability to the public, finally making its way to Mosfilm’s channel in addition to a newly rendered German blu-ray disc with English subtitles, audiences domestic and foreign have the chance to judge for themselves just which filmmakers made it to the moon first.  Though light on characterization or plot, simply wanting to see this mission successful with all the astronauts safely back home on Earth, as an early slice of effects heavy sci-fi futurism it is startlingly prescient for its day.  Full of fluid stop-motion animation and startling set pieces, Cosmic Voyage was a little engine that could fly ahead of the curve had it had the chance to on its original run.  Fans of all-things science-fiction related should be overjoyed by this unlikely rediscovery.

--Andrew Kotwicki