The Silent Star (1960)
Hi all, Nate here. On a chilly November night I came across this Russian/Polish/DDR film on a German language site and just knew I had to share my impressions of it. And yes, The Silent Star was later picked up by an American distributor, who cut and edited the film for Western tastes and released it to drive-ins in 1962 under the title The First Spaceship on Venus. No, I have not seen that one. No, I have no desire to see it. No, don’t send me links, I won’t click them. Yes, I do love cookie dough ice cream.
Let’s begin! In the near future, scientists discover some sort of object that is essentially a recording device that was apparently ejected by a spaceship that exploded over Siberia in 1908. Yes, the movie predicts that the Tunguska Event was a crashing extraterrestrial craft (it was!). The scientists decode enough of the object to understand that it came from a highly-advanced, space-faring civilization on Venus.
In the future we all wear pastels.
The human race bands together to fly to Venus and make First Contact, all the nations of the world agreeing to put aside their differences for the moment to take a great leap forward for all mankind. For the 31-day flight to Venus they have available an atomic-powered spaceship named the Cosmokrator. This Russian-designed beast is all retro-spacey cool with swoopy fins and a polished metal sheen, pretty much standard for the era. One of the (many) things that always bothered me about movies is that huge, interstellar first-in-class spaceships are always being designed and built in two weeks time to keep the plot moving along, which is just preposterous. In our movie, however, it’s explicitly stated that the Cosmokrator was already built for a planned trip to Mars and it’s just being repurposed for the Venus mission. It’s just a toss/forget line but it does wonders for the movie’s technical credibility in my mind.
The Cosmokrator’s crew is multicultural to the extreme, with a Rooskie commander, an American scientist, a Chinese scientist, a Japanese doctor, a Polish robotics engineer, a German pilot, an Indian linguist, and an African communications specialist. It’s distractingly weird to hear them all speaking German in the original film, one of the few times that I would prefer dubbing. One wonders in the fictional world of the movie how the crew would have handled eight different languages, unless they all spoke Esperanto or something.
The crew settles in.
There’s very little drama with the actual space trip, just a small run-in with some meteorites that’s easily fixed, so there’s lots of time to get to know the crew as people, and that‘s great. The most noteworthy gossip is that the German pilot Brinkman and the Japanese doctor Sumiko have a “history”. She and her late husband were friends with Brinkmann, and it’s obvious that the German had a major crush on the beautiful Sumiko. After her husband was killed in an accident on the Moon, it’s clear that Brinkmann thought he was just going to slide in there and hook up with Sumiko, but she had other ideas. Brinkmann alternates between sad puppyface and woe-is-me facebook oversharing the entire trip, all in an attempt to tug at Sumiko’s heartstrings, but she shuts him down early and often, she’s all business on this mission. Much to my surprise, Brinkmann never does anything wildly stupid to try and win her affection, something that he’d definitely do if this were an American movie.
Give it up, buddy.
As they approach Venus the scientists manage to extract a bit more data from the object, enough this time to strongly suggest that the Venusians were scouting out Earth in preparation for an invasion! Faced with the choice of turning back or going forward into the unknown, the crew votes to continue on to Venus and attempt to make peaceful contact to forestall the invasion. And finally, 50 minutes into a 90 minute movie, our intrepid explorers reach the planet Venus. A quiet Venus, one that refuses to answer their radio calls and seems quite oblivious to their presence in orbit, thus the title “The Silent Star“.
Everyone has something to add.
Stalwart pilot Brinkmann volunteers to take a one-man scout ship down to the surface to check for a landing spot for the bigger mothership. The surface of Venus is dark and foggy and spotted with weird tree-like things and blobs of shiny rock (it‘s a really well-designed and dressed set). Contact with the surface is lost, tension is high, the soundtrack soars, everyone is confused and brows are wrinkled in consternation. Things get worse when Brinkmann’s scoutship explodes due to the ionization of the atmosphere and he falls into a cavern filled with tiny jumping robot spider thingies. Clearly, things aren’t going well on humanity’s first steps on a new planet.
Brinkmann adapts on the fly.
Eventually, the Cosmokrator lands on the surface, backwards like a proper 1960’s rocket should, and the remaining crew get out to investigate. There’s a fantastic composite shot here of the crew in their spacesuits in the foreground, a tracked personnel carrier in the middle background, and way back on the horizon the looming bulk of the Cosmokrator. It’s a blink/miss shot that only lasts a few seconds but it must have taken considerable time and energy to set up and film and I applaud the effort and attention to detail. This entire movie is filled with little moments that prove that they were trying to make a quality product, and not just slamdash something through in a few days to get on drive-through screens by the weekend.
The smoke machine works overtime.
Brinkmann and the crew are reunited, even Sumiko gives him a hug, and the real exploring begins. They find obvious signs of Venusian power cables and infrastructure, including a large, internally-lit glass dome and buildings that look like Doctor Seuss drew them, but it‘s all destroyed and decaying, apparently demolished by some weapon of unimaginable power. Hints of a great explosion are seen, and we get our first (and only) view of the Venusians themselves as we see their shadows imprinted on some walls by the flash of the bombs (yes, the Hiroshima angle again). Remember that in America there was a general feeling that the atomic attacks on Japan in 1945 were necessary and justified, but that view was not shared by our enemies across the Iron Curtain. Perhaps it was fear of being bombed themselves, or perhaps it was an understanding of their own lack of a viable nuclear deterrence at the time, but Soviet Russia’s public state opinion was that Truman had committed a crime against humanity when he dropped the bombs.
Looks like they were skinny.
Anyway, some sort of Black Goo lifeform that looks like boiling cake batter is found and they barely escape back to their ship. There they gather around and wax philosophical about what it all means. Some assumptions are made, clues are outlined, some dots are connected, some leaps in logic are attempted, and in the end they all agree that the Venusians were gearing up for an invasion of Earth when they suffered a catastrophic civil war that destroyed them all. “The lethal atomic power slipped from their hands.” says the Indian scientist, based on his hunches and little else.
They also deduce from all the electrical static discharges and the weird fuzzy optical effects on the negatives that the Venusian Doomsday Device is still operational and the silly humans have accidentally activated it. The Chinese guy and the African dude take a vehicle back to the blasted city and make it all better (sort of). The technobabble here is distracting and nonsensical but the visuals and the sets are so damned good that you don’t even notice. What you can’t help but notice, however, is that the climatic “shutting down the computer” scene takes place off screen.
But nothing comes easy for our crew and tragedy is looming. The gravity is reversing in the Venus machines, causing the Cosmokrator to be hurled into space despite their best efforts to stay on the surface. Brinkmann, the Chinese guy, and the African dude are unfortunately left behind on the surface of Venus, presumably to their deaths. I was actually thinking that everyone was going to make it back alive, we were 98% of the way to the closing credits and the whole crew was still breathing, despite the fact that several of them were clearly Red Shirt Ensigns. But if there’s anything the Rooskies know it’s noble self-sacrifice to a common cause, so I guess I can’t be that surprised at the empty seats on the return trip to Earth.
Sure, why not?
The last scene is the remaining crew back on our Blue Marble, sad for their losses but proud of the adventure they were on. They make a plea for everyone to get along and for an effort be made to find life on other planets, fantastic goals to my mind. Even in 1960, the Rooskies were planning an ambitious series of robotic exploration missions to Venus and Mars, and beyond, dedicated to bringing Communism to the heavens and making everyone in the solar system drive shitty Ladas and drink watered-down vodka.
Cheer up, you discovered alien life!
A few final notes on the production… First off, most, if not all, of the crew have spouses and children that are either seen or talked about frequently. In a lot of Western b-movies, the spaceship crews are all single guys and gals with no tie-downs back on Earth to keep them from hooking up with the token female scientist or the hot alien spacebabes they encounter. In a related note, none of the dudes on the Cosmokrator are what you would call traditionally handsome, they are mostly all middle-aged, paunchy, balding guys with university tenure and three years left to pay on their Saab. The youngest of them, the Chinese scientist, is about 70 pounds, and presumed stud Brinkmann is about as attractive as a Lesser Baldwin Brother. The lone girl Sumiko is kinda cute, but her cold-as-ice demeanor and severe hairdo knock her back a few points.
Meh, could do better.
Overall the set and prop design is superb, inside and out. Except for one huge, unmarked bank of blinking lights (sigh…), things inside the Cosmokrator actually look like functional spaceship controls and structures. A nice touch is that there’s different surface exploration suits for high-radiation areas, separate from their normal light duty suits, which are helpfully color-coded to each person. The design of the “caterpillar tractor” is great, reminding me of similar planetary vehicles I‘ve seen in other Russian sci-fi movies. It even has a small rocket attached to the roof that can be used for over-land trips (super cool!).
Lastly I’d like to give them a head-smack for getting some of the hard science totally wrong. As they approach Venus, their computers tell them the composition of the atmosphere as “26% carbon dioxide, 14% formaldehyde, no oxygen, highly toxic“. Thanks to the last 75 years of research and exploration, we know that Venus’s atmospheric composition is actually 95% carbon dioxide, 4% nitrogen, and trace amounts of other junk. Eh, we’ll let that slide. I won’t bore you with this right at the end of the review, but Venus has always been Russia’s baby when it comes to planetary exploration, they’ve put more time and effort and robots into Venus than all the other nations combined and their scientists have done more to illuminate that mysterious world more than anyone else. Even the Nazis ignored Venus in favor of the Moon…
This movie could definitely use a bit more pulp…
Written in November 2014 by Nathan Decker.
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