Through Thorns to the Stars (1980)
Hi all, Nate here with a pretty cool old Russian sci-fi movie. I can't find a subtitled or dubbed version, but since it's such a unique and visually stunning film (for reals!) I thought I'd write this review solely in a series of screen capture captions wherein I blindly guess what is happening. Fun!
In the 22nd Century, man has reached the stars and found them populated. As we open an Earth ship has come across a derelict alien scientific research vessel floating along with a nasty jagged hole in the side.
Amish Beard and Unfortunate Mustache pilot the ship. Yes, this movie is set in the FUTURE but everyone looks like they're in a Moscow discotheque in 1980.
They board the alien ship and find it a wreck. Alien clone baby thingies in medical tubes float around disturbingly in the green light. The "zero gravity" scenes are shot underwater, but they take great pains to avoid telltale airbubbles so it actually looks pretty good (if a bit murky).
They find a survivor, a young alien girl near death.
Back on an Earth space station, the big-wigs discuss what to do with the alien girl. Russian Bea Arthur seems to be in command of the group and it's her decision in the end. Hope she clears it with the Political Commissar or she's long for the gulag.
Russian Russell Crow makes his plea for scientific research, others probably want to dissect her or brainwash her into killing Reagan or something. This is not First Contact, by the way, humans have encountered alien races in this movie universe before.
The girl, named Niya, awaits her fate impassively. This is her default expression for her default emotion, by the way, don't expect much more.
In the end Russell Crow and Bea Arthur win and the girl will go live with an Earth family to learn emotions and feelings and Communist party hymns and stuff. Seems logical.
So she goes to this awesome house in the countryside, an ultra-cool Soviet modernist take on the old log cabin dacha style.
Here she meets Russian Angela Landsbury, the homeowner and a scientist herself.
Russell Crow and his son (maybe?) Russian Nick Jonas are also here. This will be the character base for the first third of the movie.
It becomes pretty clear early that Niya is “special”. She can turn invisible, see through walls, move things with her mind, predict the future, teleport, and other typical sci-fi omnipotent being tropes. But she's young and scared and unsure of what's happening and it's up to the humans to make her whole again (aww...).
Bea Arthur comes by to visit occasionally, to check on the alien humanization project. I should note that, other than Niya, most of the female characters in this movie are gray-haired old ladies. Props to the casting director.
Yeah, yeah, Niya has bleached gray hair but she's just a teenager (in alien years). And her heavy make-up makes her look like she's Brazilian (the actress playing her is a pasty, Nordic white girl from Moscow).
Russell Crow's dad (maybe?), Russian Homeless Guy, plays "where's the quarter" with him. Stop, dad, the pretty alien girl is watching, you're embarrassing me.
This being the FUTURE, they have a Russian Mister Handy household robot, like in Fallout 4. It likes to play tennis, I guess. The prop robot is just a short guy in a plastic and cardboard suit.
Having come from spaaaaace, Niya is amazed by the little things, like blades of grass and crickets and blooming flowers. We learn that her homeworld is pretty barren and lifeless, probably not many carnations there.
Nick Jonas, being young and horny, has decided that he likes the exotic Niya in a special, humpy way. Of course he does.
Bea Arthur warns him against such things on his awesome TV watch (not even the Apple iWatch will let you do this!).
Niya is spooked easily and hides out in old diving suits in the closet, much like my cats. Hopefully, Niya doesn't barf on anything or leave fur everywhere.
Russell Crow brings the pimphand.
Rarely, and I mean rarely, does anyone smile in this movie. Gets old after a while, this is such a joyless, depressing movie at times (most times).
Well, they do smile when they are playing slapjack. I can't help but feel this scene is an outtake that made it into the final print. And, also, they played slapjack in 1980's Soviet Union???? As Yakov would say, In Soviet Russia, slapjack plays you!
As part of the process, Niya is subjected to a series of medical tests. Those are brain-wave reading probe thingies.
Bea Arthur returns to the house to administer the tests, because she's a smartyhead scientist type. Is this lab at the house? In the basement lab? I still haven't figured out why Niya wasn't sent to a university hospital or something. Or even locked away in Russia's Area 51, she's clearly capable of doing real damage to people.
Niya puts on a see-through leotard and practices her gang signs, all part of the process of becoming a back-up dancer for NWA, the most human of endeavors.
The tests don't go well and Bea Arthur is frustrated. She's gonna mess up her perm doing that.
So it's up to gangly, shovel-faced Nick Jonas to make some tangible progress with Niya's emotional development, so he takes her on a nature walk one day.
At the lakeshore he tries to get her to take a swim. Probably just so he can see her boobies because men are pigs.
But Nick Jonas' girlfriend shows up just then and she puts the hammer down on his plans for extensive "scientific genital research". And she's wearing a bikini, that's nice.
Niya and the frizzy-haired girlfriend do not become best friends, and Niya experiences human jealousy for the first time. Both jealous of the girl's relationship with Nick Jonas and jealous of her sexy curves, because Niya is built like a 12-year old boy.
She even tries to kill the girlfriend by Jedi force-pushing her off a cliff (damn, girl), but she can't pull the trigger. The girlfriend apparently dumps Nick Jonas after this, because she's never seen again. She's probably dating his brother now.
Girl's gotta get a grip on herself.
It's around here that the previously amnesiac Niya starts to flashback to events in her past. All the flashbacks are helpfully sepia-toned and seem to suggest that she's a genetically-created clone. The old guy is her "father", the scientist that created her and her sibling clones back on their homeworld.
He's got a skeevy cult leader vibe going, and he really looks like a scruffier and drunker version of Jor-El from Superman the Movie.
Bea Arthur and Russell Crow discuss the alien's situation and how she still refuses to be happy about anything. Russell Crow, who I thought was going to be a major character, exits for good after this scene.
Nick Jonas takes some time off to fix Mister Handy. Now that his girlfriend left him, Mister Handy has...new duties.
While Niya puts on some of Angela Landsbury's wigs, which make her look like Whitney Houston, circa 1983. She's becoming ever so slightly more human over time, but still remains aloof and quick tempered.
I love the white ceramic tiles around the fireplace, though they do clash with the fake wooden log motif. Andrew Lloyd Webber would not approve.
Sadly this is the last we see of this house, and of Angela Landsbury. You'd expect to return to this locale at some point to circle the plot, but we never do. In a way it seems like we wasted all this plot set-up for nothing.
So then the movie seemingly jumps ahead a few years. Niya is now living on her own? She's wearing a pixie cut wig? And she's an archaeologist??? What the hell? Who is this Mexican guy? I really wish I understood Russian, it would make this much easier to follow.
And what are they looking at? Does it have anything at all to do with our movie? Is that a carving of two dudes having sex?
Also, more flashbacks to grizzled Jor-El imparting wisdom to the clone children. Are they Padawan Jedi younglings?
Nick Jonas, meanwhile, has joined the Space Navy (hence the spiffy jacket) and is preparing for a deep space mission. He's here with the ship's helmsman, Russian Robert Pattinson.
Nick Jonas' grandpa (maybe?) is here to see him off and warn him of the dangers of pastel checks. The arrow helpfully points to his desperate need for a better conditioner.
The spaceport looks suitably spacey, and the ships are all 1950s vintage flying saucer types. Note that they just superimposed this over what looks like a photo of a Black Sea resort pier in the summer (check out Boris from Krasnoyarsk there in his XXL t-shirt).
Niya (with her Amelie disguise) is also at the spaceport, she has a plan.
Which is to sneak aboard the spaceship, because she hears that it's going to her homeworld. I don't know why Niya is out on her own now, none of this bridging scene makes any sense at all, but just know that she's done with Earth and is looking to stowaway back home.
Bea Arthur is onboard as well, it seems she's in charge of the scientific aspects of the mission. The mission, by the way, seems to be general exploration as well as a visit to Niya's homeworld.
Ok, there's this octopus thingie in a rolling aquarium tank that is able to speak and do math and stuff. A mutant? A result of advanced genetic manipulation? Who knows but it's super ugly and is totally just a kid wearing a burlap and rubber monster suit. This movie did not need a comic relief monster sidekick, trust me.
Some interesting blocking in this film, very late '70s California bohemian film school.
Robert Pattinson really, really needs to wax that unibrow.
Once in space, Niya makes her presence known to the bridge crew. She's changed back into her standard alien look, and ditched the distracting wig (thankfully).
Bea Arthur doesn't seem surprised to see her here. In fact, no one is that upset that she sneaked onboard without a boarding pass and a ticket.
Her look is growing on me, she has awful pretty eyes.
On the long trip Nick Jonas makes buttermilk biscuits for his octopus friend. I don't know what that means but it happened.
See the distortion? A lot of this movie is filmed with a fish-eye lens for some reason. Rarely (never) does anything look good filmed through a fish-eye lens, unless it's POV Monster Vision. Also, why can't she just sit normally in a chair, is it some sort of alien thing?
Robert Pattinson and the ship's captain, Russian Liam Neeson, enjoy a spot of tea while gazing out upon the starry firmament.
My god, Russian Liam Neeson is a seriously handsome man.
You know the ship is technologically sophisticated because of all the rows and rows of unmarked, rhythmically blinking lights.
Even the personal-use consoles are a mindless blob of unnamed switches and 1950's style push buttons. When did not properly labeling control surfaces become a thing in sci-fi movies?
Oh, anyway, I forgot, onboard the ship is also an Ambassador from Niya's homeworld who is returning from an official trip to Earth. You can tell he's an alien because he has a bad toupee and has shaved his beard except for a little tuft asymmetrically dangling from his left cheek. Yes, that is fucking stupid.
Either by accident or design they come across the derelict alien ship, the same one we saw in the opening minutes where Niya was found. What's up with the random number grid?
The Earth ship, which is named the Astra, reels out an airlock gantry to mate up with the alien wreck. The in-space modelwork is pretty crappy, there are too many “shadows” and the starfield is too bright and uniform to be believable.
Niya just teleports herself over there and has a look-see. She passes out (?) for some reason and Nick Jonas has to come and save her (for love!). Not sure what this bit in the old wreck accomplishes but it seems to have helped jog Niya's memories a little more.
Back on the Astra, Niya is even more moody and grumpy. She's beginning to sound like my ex-wife at this point, never happy about anything and always looking for a rain cloud.
Her psuedo-not-really boyfriend Nick Jonas can't help but notice that nothing he does can cheer her up. He should move on, he could do better.
Bea Arthur also strikes out with Niya.
So does Russian Italian Guy, the ship's First Officer, who completely out-of-nowhere ends up being a main character for the rest of the film.
Not even petting a cutesywootsy kitty can get Niya out of her funk, and that's just sad.
The alien Ambassador also talks with Niya quite a bit in this middle act, about what I have absolutely no idea, but it doesn't improve her mood at all. Before I said he had a toupee, but I think now that it's his normal hair, just waxed and sprayed down into a ridiculous forehead triangle. Does he look TOS Klingon to you?
Meanwhile, out in near space, something explodes? Too much stuff happens off-camera in this movie, and we only see it through little viewscreens.
Must have been something important that blew up because everyone looks super serious about it. Except Nick Jonas, he's clearly trying to scratch an itch on his back.
So they show up at a water planet? Or is this Earth? No, why would they backtrack? It's not Niya's homeworld, just another habitable planet, it seems. The matte work on the models is pretty good, they dropped some rubles on the optical effects, if nothing else. They look way better against sky backgrounds than in space.
They lower a platform and Nick Jonas releases his freaky nightmare-fuel octopus friend into the water. Not sure why but I'm glad its gone, that thing was creeping me out. Note the Cylon-looking silver android there with them, they have a couple along on the mission.
Niya couldn't care less. I wouldn't care about her, either, but she's kinda hot in a bitchy, unapproachable way.
The Astra heads back towards their destination now, and Italian Guy takes over much of the dialogue. Which is fine, he seems capable and I love how all this wrinkles give him character.
A good look here at the stylized "A" patch on the crew's jumpsuits, A for Astra. Also a good look at the clean, sterile workspaces of the ship, the robot butlers must be ever-vigilant for clutter or coffee cup rings.
Dang, Nick Jonas has a big chin.
BTW, I'm not gay, but I'd totally do Russian Liam Nesson.
So they arrive at Niya's homeworld and it's a shithole.
An over-polluted, acid-rain wasteland of rust and cancer. Like what Russians in 1980 imagined that West Virginia looked like.
This is what West Virginia looks like.
The West Virginia state legislature.
Typical West Virginia citizens. I could do this for hours.
The honorable Earthlings are here to help them clean up their sour, diseased planet, bringing happy life and sweet harmony to these capitalist swine through collectivism and subservience to centralized authority.
The locals want/need the help, though they are leery of off-worlders meddling in their stew. Everyone here seems to have shopped at the same secondhand gas mask and rain coat shop, the one that only sells stuff in blue and gray.
Hey, that's an old steam train with some sort of vent duct work attached to the boiler. Wonder what that's for (in real life).
All these scenes were apparently filmed at an abandoned oil refinery somewhere in the Caucasus, and the sepia tone filter really punches up the feeling of suffering and misery. There's a real ecological warning tone to our movie all of a sudden, a subtle reminder to the ruling elites to neglect the environment at their own peril.
This guy is maybe the Vice President? Too many characters being introduced this late in the movie for my tastes. He must be important because he isn't wearing a gas mask and his flesh isn't half melted off.
He meets with the President, who looks and acts like Zorg from The Fifth Element so much that someone really ought to sue Luc Besson. Love the kitschy gas mask artwork on the walls, I want that for my secret backyard fallout shelter. Which I totally don't have! Really.
The basement of the building, complete with broken masonry and rusty rebar. I say "the" building because there appears to be only one on the planet and that's where all our interiors are filmed. Hey, is this where they filmed that werewolf-vs-vampire scene in Underworld?
Meanwhile, Bea Arthur preps their robots to do experiments in the harsh surface environment. It's a guy in a suit, of course, but he moves his arms in stilted, robot dance movements so it's totes believable.
Wading around in the slushy, fetid water, checking samples.
Niya's a native, so she alone can take off her helmet and breathe the air without dying.
Though sometimes she keeps her helmet on, not sure why, especially indoors. Surely you've realized by now that very little in this movie makes a lick of sense. I wonder how many scriptwriters they had on the payroll.
The Astra flies in low to release some sort of Clean Air Bomb to burn off the toxic smog.
Does it work?
Yes, yes it does. And the air is fresh and clean, the rain won't melt your skin off, and the hills are alive with the sound of Russian folk music. So, not West Virginia, then.
Even sunshine and flowers can't cheer up Debbie Downer Niya. Give it up, Nick Jonas, she's emotional dead weight.
Especially since she's incapable of showing any more intimacy than waving her hand near your face for a few seconds. God, she is sounding more and more like my ex-wife.
Despite the sun, the natives are restless (for some reason) and Niya is nearly caught up in a basement riot.
Bea Arthur councils Niya that things are not ever going to be right on her planet, because West Virginia sucks.
Bad news, the Clean Air Bomb was just a temporary fix, the pollution levels are still lethal and getting worse. Perhaps you should just nuke the planet from orbit, it's the only way to be sure.
The Ambassador reappears to have a sad chat with Niya, who makes his head hurt with her constant complaining and moaning about how you never talk about your feelings and drink too much. I bet she doesn't have a lot of facebook friend requests.
Meanwhile, eeevil Zorg is happy things are returning to smoggy normal, as his business is selling gas masks and replacement lungs to the citizens. Clean air is bad money for him.
The Ambassador doesn't feel the same way, however, and they have some harsh words in Zorg's office. I believe the set here is a redress of a hallway in the Astra ship set, same wall patterns and lighting.
Zorg takes some time to DJ a few dubstep tracks on his personal radio station. Zorg is an actual dwarf, by the way, which surprised me somewhat. Ever seen a Russian dwarf before? I assume the same percentage of the general population are dwarfs across all nations, but I've just never seen one from Russia. Now I have to google that.
This dude could use some corrective dental work.
He of low morals Zorg has the Ambassador stabbed when he tries to interfere. This is the very first act of physical violence in this movie, and the only blood we see, this is a thinking man's sci- fi movie if there ever was one.
Mortally wounded, the Ambassador stumbles up to the Jor-El's laboratory, flopping up the dusty staircase like a tuna on the docks. This scene goes on so long, and the actor is hamming it up so much, that you begin to wonder if they shouldn't have cut this bit out in post as it messes with the serious tone of the rest of the movie.
Jor-El the clonemaker has a vat of some sort of biomass foam that, I'm spitballing here, in which the clones (like Niya) are made. The visuals of the biomass vat are truly excellent, a Lovecraftian jumble of legs, hands and heads frothing around to the echos of crying and screams of terror (mine).
Meanwhile, Niya is outside, wandering around and looking at the drab, boring Soviet-style monolithic architecture of her homeworld. Man, it must have sucked to live in Russia before the wall fell.
She eventually meets up with Zorg, who mind controls her (?) and fits her with a mini-nuke bomb in a fake watch (?) so she can go back aboard the Astra and blow it up (?) so he can go back to making a financial killing on selling gas mask filters and window squeegies.
Even being a mind-controlled terrorist bomber is not enough to get Niya to crack a smile. I'm glad I never had kids with her.
On the way to the ship to do her dastardly deed, she meets some of the Earthmen, who don't seem to notice anything wrong. As in, she's still a sadpuppy downer with a flat butt and an over-inflated sense of her own importance.
Bea Arthur, however, notices that her watch is ticking and smells of a hydrogen bomb. Niya comes to her senses a bit, enough to toss the watch aside.
Sadly, Bea Arthur takes a bullet from one of Zorg's henchmen and dies in the dirt. I'll miss that old bird, she seemed like the only one who could understand Niya's silent emotional moods. And she kinda looked like my mom.
For some reason (I say that phrase a lot...) the cloning biomass foam bursts out of the vat and starts to flood the building like that one time your brokeass washing machine went haywire and kept running for five hours while you were at class and flooded out your whole apartment and cost you your security deposit.
Niya, helped by her human friends, has to use her Jedi force powers to keep the flood back. I don't know what that means either. And then the movie comes off the rails for a minute...
What? Is this an Earth Day commercial?
What? What? Are you pouring grain on that planet? Was this movie funded by the Leninests Agricultural Komsomolets #17?
Apparently whatever the hell just happened caused the planet to become green and fertile again (???). Even this cannot get a rise out of the emotionally comatose Niya.
Nick Jonas, ever the sap, still wants her to come back to Earth with him and have babies and sign a lease on a walk-up in Brooklyn.
But Niya is going to stay here on her own planet, because that's just the way it has to be. Maybe Nick Jonas can hook up with his ex-girlfriend again? She looked bangin' in that bikini.
So that's the end of the movie. It seemed pretty slow and boring, even without subtitles, but it had just enough happening to make it worth the watch, and the amazingly unique cinematography made it fun to review. If you understand Russian, let me know how close I came to the actual plot, ok?
Written in February 2016 by Nathan Decker.
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