Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965)
This is a hatchet job. Much like when an American production company took the 1954 Japanese movie Gojira, slashed and mutilated it, stitched in some western actors, and released it in 1956 as Godzilla King of the Monsters, our movie is also a Frankenstein mix of foreign and domestic bits and parts. It started out as the 1962 Russian movie Planeta Bur (an epic masterpiece in its own right from what I've read), and after infamous American b-movie king Roger Corman bought the rights to it, was released in 1965 as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.
Corman cut a huge amount of film out of Planeta Bur, found some slumming, desperate-for-rent-money English-speaking actors and filmed a number of new scenes to insert into what was left of the original Russian footage he saved. It actually sounds worse than it is, and considering the limitations of the source material, and what was surely a budget running into the tens of dollars, Corman gave us a pretty fair and watchable movie.
On a side note, I was never really aware of the volume and quality of Warsaw Pact science fiction before picking this movie. Sure, I've seen Solaris (which bored me into a coma frankly) but nothing else. After seeing the tantalizing bits and pieces of Planeta Bur peeking through Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, I now want to hunt down some more sci-fi from behind the Curtain.
And now on to our show...
Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet concerns the first manned expedition to the planet Venus. This is an all-Russian mission in the original, and in our version only a few token Westerners are on hand to give it the veneer of "international cooperation". In real life, Venus has always been a specialty of the Russians, just as Mars has always been the apple of America's eye. Russian probes and landers over the last forty years have told us virtually everything we know about our "sister planet".
We open as three Russian spaceships are nearing Venus. These are the Sirius, Capella and Vega, seemingly identically designed ships. They look like typical 1950's European sci-fi movie spaceships, more chunky and utilitarian than the sleek and racy American movie spaceships of the same era. The opticals for the ships in space are fairly average, though we only see a few seconds of them here.
One of the spaceships.
Suddenly, a rocky asteroid comes from out of nowhere to impact on Capella's hull! Ka-boom! Down one ship. The other two crews are in a state of shock and anger, but realize that they have no choice but to go on with their mission. They will, however, have to alter their plans substantially.
We go now to "Lunar 7", a huge space station presumably orbiting the moon and the place from which the Venus mission was both launched and is being monitored. The exterior shots of the station are Russian footage, but all the interior scenes are American additions.
Well, might as well do this here. The American-added footage consists of two types. First is a generic "Lunar 7 space station control room" set where Professor Hartman is always seen. The second is a generic "Vega spaceship control cabin" set (that bares only passing resemblance to the Russian footage of the same ship's control cabin) where the lovely Marsha hangs out. At no point does anyone ever appear in a shot with Marsha, and Professor Hartman never leaves his own set. They made a noble effort to tint the film stock to match the Russian footage, and generally it blends as well as can be expected.
So, on the Lunar 7 we meet Professor Hartman, the man responsible for the overall control of the Venus mission (and apparently the one who designed all the spaceships also). Hartman is played by 73-year old British screen legend Basil Rathbone (!), here slumming to make his alimony payments and get a new set of snow tires for his Jaguar before winter comes.
After hearing the sad news of the lost Capella, the Professor orders the spaceship Astra prepped for immediate launch to provide a replacement ship. He also stresses that they're too late to turn back now and have to continue with "Flight Plan A", landing on Venus.
After some convoluted discussions, the other two ships decide to continue on with the landings without waiting for the replacement ship to arrive, which might take many weeks. Vega and Sirius both have a three-man crew, Sirius carries a robot as well (occasionally called a "cybernetic machine" or a "automaton"). They all have international sounding names like Sherman and Lockett, but all the actors clearly look continental. Since none of the five Russian actors really distinguish themselves from each other all that much, I might as well just rename them something easier to remember. Besides, I can't find squat in the way of biographies on them anyway, so what difference does it make? The Vega crew will from here on referred to as Boris and Ivan, while the Sirius crew will be Josef, Vladimir and Karl.
Josef, Vladimir, Karl, Boris and Ivan.
And now we meet our other American actor, Female cosmonaut Marsha. Marsha is played by 41-year old I-was-nearly-famous-once-but-fate-passed-me-by American actress Faith Domergue. If her acting prowess in our movie is any indication of the level of effort Mrs. Domergue normally put forth, it's no surprise that she remained mired in b-movie hell for so long. Marsha's exact role in this movie is unclear, she's the one crewman left up in orbit from the Vega crew when Boris and Ivan go down to the surface with the robot. This allows for (all too) frequent cut-aways to her looking all nervous and worried and communicating with people over a radio mic. I'm sure she filmed all her scenes in an afternoon at the most.
The editing is a bit confusing here (thanks to the copious cuts by the American editors) but it seems that Boris and Ivan and the robot left the Vega in a smaller landing module (perhaps what is called the "auxiliary spacecraft") for their descent to the surface (I guess, for all I can tell they parachuted down). I think.
The landing either goes quite well, or is a thunderous crashing disaster, I can't tell which. The Sirius crew looses contact with the lander, though they write that off to the horizon blocking radio signals. Later we see the two men and the robot seemingly doing fine, though they are stranded down there, so they probably crash landed and the lander module is unflyable (it perhaps crashed in the sea, one line of dialogue might suggest that).
So the rest of the cosmonauts still in orbit now have to make a decision. To wait in orbit or to go down to the surface and try and find the missing men. Clearly, they have to choose the later as they just can't abandon their fellow cosmonauts. So, in the Sirius, Josef, Vladimir and Karl set to land on the planet's surface. This they do without incident, landing tail-down on long landing legs.
After landing, the Sirius crew put on their spacesuits and open the hatch. The spacesuits are very inventively designed, and clearly the costuming staff put a lot of thought into their design and construction. While many spacesuits from other science fiction films of the era (12 to the Moon, The Phantom Planet, and Rocketship XM, to name just a few) were basically Air Force jet fighter high-pressure suits with some added doodads, the Russian-designed suits in our movie actually look like they would work on an alien world. My biggest pet peeve with most spacesuits in movies is the helmet joint, which never seems to be solid enough. Here, however, they do away with the helmet altogether and have a clear immobile glass bulb attached to the shoulders, which really looks neat. They also are festooned with all sorts of pouches and equipment (cameras, notepads, holsters, rope, etc.), logically if they're here for an exploration.
Cool spacesuits, really.
The surface of Venus in this movie looks a lot like...well, like Earth, somewhere in the rocky floodplain along the foothills of some mountains. There's ample water, both in rivers and oceans, and temperatures are tropical but not so hot as to be uncomfortable. A misty layer of fog is ever-present, helping with the ambiance of the outdoor sets. Venus is also inhabited by a variety of flora and fauna. Numerous plant species dot the terrain, mostly looking faintly Mesozoic. There are also at least two species (all we see but certainly many, many more) of land animals, one flying animal species, and an untold number of fish species. All the animals are designed to look like a 1950s view of the Jurassic Era, dinosaurs and reptiles. I'll detail them as they appear.
One of the men (Karl, I think, who really looks like James Dean) takes the first stroll, excited to the point of giddiness at stepping foot on an alien world. He kicks some rocks, pokes in the dirt and piddles in a pool of water. He then rounds the corner of a boulder and is confronted with a nasty carnivorous plant! The plant is a clear rip-off of 1960's Little Shop of Horrors, though with the addition of a number of waving tentacles that reach out to grab hapless passerbys and drag them into the "mouth" of the plant.
The cosmonaut pulls his knife but then drops it almost immediately (some training) as the tentacles surround his legs and torso. He cries for help to his two comrades, who come as fast as they can, working their way through the fog. Using knives and frantic grabs, they manage to extricate the poor man from certain death and pull back to a safe distance. The plant, its meal run off, closes up its tulip-like leaves around itself to wait for another snack to wander by.
Rah, I'm a killer plant!
Ok, remember the first two guys who landed and were presumed lost? Well, they're actually alive, if not exactly well. We cut suddenly (thanks to a very abrupt and confusing editing slice) to Boris and Ivan in extreme difficulty. They're out in some smoking mud flat under attack by waves of Lizard Men! These beasts are bipedal lizards that look like eight-year old kids wearing knock-off Godzilla costumes (1962, remember, the heyday of Godzilla). I'm assuming that in the original Russian Planeta Bur, there was considerable lead-up to this scene, telling us more about these creatures and why they're so hostile.
The Lizard Men (as they call them later) bull-rush at the two men, bounding and leaping with their rubber claws, intending to do serious bodily harm. Boris and Ivan are channeling their forefather's at Stalingrad here, doggedly fighting back against seemingly overwhelming odds. Boris has this spacey-looking pistol that fires projectiles of some sort (maybe an early EM pellet gun?), while Ivan seems to have just a standard Russian Army-issue 9mm Makarov pistol.
Eventually, the two men and the robot flee the Lizard Men, after killing a number of them. We don't see how exactly (probably another victim of the American editors) but they do escape and the Lizard Men are never seen again (and only spoken of once again).
Might as well talk about the robot here. The robot (improbably called "John" here, though probably "Ivan" in the original) is a novel, if somewhat amusing, design. Clearly influenced by the famous Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet, it's a bipedal metal beast about seven-feet tall, made of shiny metal. Some of the neater bits include visible (and working!) pneumatic pistons in arm and leg joints, and the ability for the upper torso to spin in a circle while the legs remain stationary. It's a very Russian-looking machine, giving the impression of ruggedness and dependability, forsaking ascetic charm and individuality for utilitarian function and performance. I'm going to call it "T-34" for this review.
Back now to T-34, Boris and Ivan, who after escaping the Lizard Men, are wandering around in the rain (yes, rain) and not doing too well. The men are tired, injured in some way (oblique reference to suit damage in Lizard Men attack) and generally feeling depressed. They haven't had any contact with anyone in a very long time, and are going on pure faith that someone is coming to find them soon. Robot T-34 is also having some issues. It seems that the heavy rains are threatening to disable its systems (low marks there, you'd think they would build it to withstand water. I wonder if that line was only in the American version). The three of them are barely able to make it to a cave which provides relief from the driving rain and the slippery footing. They plop down and pant heavily while T-34 stands guards at the cave entrance.
Meanwhile, the other three cosmonauts are preparing to travel across the land to find their lost friends. They unload this cool hovercar for the trip. The hovercar is a wonderful looking machine, a full-size mock-up seemingly built from a Russian automobile chassis (my money is on a late 1950s Moskvitch 402 or 403 sedan) with the wheels removed and a large glassed-in cockpit on top. The hovercar has a nifty "astrogun" mounted on a railing over the crew cabin that seems to fire pellets or bullets (judging by the sound alone). It even has these cool Cadillac-like tailfins! It's a fairly compact design, but can fit five men inside with just a little cramping, the ample headroom of the high glass roof helps.
The hovercar, very nifty.
Off they go, heading in the general direction that they suspect the men to be. Later we see that they have some intermittent radio contact with the robot T-34 (while Boris and Ivan are sleeping) which helps them plot their course.
As they cruise along, looking through some hazy fog at a distant rocky outcropping, they spy a big ass dinosaur! This is a medium-sized Brontosaurus-looking quadruped herbivore, which just seems to be standing there minding his own business. And yes, I said Brontosaurus, not Apatosaurus, the politically correct "new name". I was a vertebrate paleontology major for a while and it always pissed me off that they changed that species' name from the century-long established Brontosaurus to the lameass-sounding Apatosaurus just because they found that some old bone in the back of the museum labeled Apatosaurus was really from a Brontosaurus, and just because the older one was registered first, then they abandoned the Brontosaurus name. This despite the fact that Brontosaurus had already been firmly established in the public consciousness as well as pop culture (Gertie the Bronto!). Half the world still calls it a Brontosaurus anyway. This is why the average knuckle-dragging Joe Dumbass considers all scientists to be loser geeks. I digress.
Anyway, one cosmonaut sneaks up and gets a blood sample from the Bronto's tail. I should note that none of the men seem very shocked that Venus is populated by Cretaceous Era dinosaurs. Must be some stoic Russian thing, or maybe they have Brontosaurs in the Urals and are just not telling anyone...
A bit later, the hovercar comes to the shore of the "Venusian Sea", which looks surprisingly like the Ukrainian coast of the Black Sea, and they stop to make some plans. They have to get across the sea (why did they land so far away again?) so they set off across the chopping waters.
Suddenly, they're attacked by a giant, foam rubber and paper mache pterodactyl thing! Trapped out here on the surface of the sea, they have no where to run and must try and fight it off. The "astrogun" is brought into play, and is supported by Josef firing his Makarov pistol from a standing position.
The pterodactyl attacks!
All the firepower seems ineffectual, and the flying monster continues to swoop dangerously low over them. The last recourse they have is to submerge the hovercar (accomplished by settling down in the water and opening a floor-mounted seacock).
And now for some of the more inventive scenes, of Josef, Vladimir and Karl walking along the bottom of the sea, towing their neutrally buoyant hovercar along behind them. This is clearly (though not clearly enough to destroy the wonderful illusion presented) a soundstage filmed through a "water lens" or maybe even through an actual fish tank.
As they walk along, heading for the shoreline, they (and we) marvel at all the fish and plantlife down here. The set is dressed with numerous Precambrian-looking aquatic ferns and spindly fronds waving in the "current", and numerous tropical fish swim around in front of the camera. One egregiously fake looking creature is noted to have the "head of a dolphin and the tail of a shark!".
After stopping to rest, they spy a strange rock formation nearby (still underwater here). Approaching it, they realize that it's not natural at all, but instead a clearly ancient and weathered stone statue! Just the head remains above the sea bottom, but it looks like the giant pterodactyl thing that attacked them earlier, and it has a ruby for an eye! They leave it in place and keep swimming to shore. It took me a while to figure out why this ending seemed so odd, but then I realized that if this was an all-American production, one of them would have taken the ruby!
The dragonish thingie.
So they finally get back on shore and drag the hovercar up onto the rocky beach. They have to "dry out" a lot of the components, but that all goes well. Except for...yes, the "only radio" is now permanently broken. Is that one of the most overused movie cliches of all time or what? Russians typically have backups for everything, backups for backups even, so you can't tell me that the single most important piece of equipment on a Russian space exploration trip does not have some redundancy.
Meanwhile, up in orbit, Marsha is having a bit of a nervous breakdown. She has lost radio contact with both groups of men and is fearing that she's alone now. Showing some good Russian fortitude, she decides that she must go down to the surface in the Vega and see if she can locate and save the lost men herself. She worries that she cannot wait until the Astra (the fourth ship) arrives from Earth with more support.
Marsha, really needing someone to talk to.
Professor Hartman back on Lunar 7 is quite opposed to Marsha landing the Vega, as it would mean that both ships (the Vega and the Sirius) are now vulnerable to the unknown. He councils waiting for the Astra to arrive before she does anything rash. Unfortunately, the radio reception is not the best and only half of what he says does she hear. Cut off completely now, Marsha seems to make the fateful choice to venture to the planet's surface.
Back to Boris and Ivan, along with robot T-34, who are still working their way across the rugged Venusian landscape. Having recovered their strength (thanks to T-34 feeding them some health pills of some sort), they are still trying to rendezvous with their comrades, who they know are out there somewhere looking for them. They come to a place where they see off in the middle distance a large volcano in the process of a slow eruption. Rivers of molten lava flow down from the mountain and a large blackish cloud of ash obscures much of the view.
One of them (Boris, I think, who looks racially Mongolian) wants to get closer to take some samples of the lava for future research, which is fine. Ivan is a bit leery of approaching too closely to the lava for fear of being caught in it, but he relents and off they go. After hearing Ivan's worries, you all know what's going to happen next, right?
Sure enough, as they collect their lava samples (in what looks like a super-ceramic jar), they notice that the lava flow has cut off their only escape route! Left with little else to do, they order T-34 to carry (!) them across the shallowest part of the lava flow to safety. Boris and Ivan climb on top of T-34, who dutifully plods out into the lava. His body must be made out of some seriously strong material, because he's both keeping intact and keeping his balance.
Boris and Ivan catch a ride.
But, after a minute or so, the heat begins to corrupt T-34's systems. We hear the robot announce that a complete system failure is immanent if it doesn't get out of the lava soon. And the only way T-34 can see to do this in time is to "lighten the load" so it can walk faster! So it reaches up and grabs a hold of Ivan and begins to pull him off! Wow, I guess whoever designed T-34's software never heard of Asimov's Three Rules of Robotics.
Ivan is less than pleased with the prospect of becoming a charcoal briquette so that this robot can continue to function and starts to holler. Boris thinks quickly and opens an access panel on T-34's head, and starts frantically pulling wires and circuit boards at random. Just as Ivan is about to be lost, he pulls the right wire and T-34 grinds to a halt. Ivan is saved, but now they're stuck in the middle of a lava flow on top of a busted robot with no way out.
Ah, but here comes their comrades! Finally! The hovercar arrives in the nick of time, pulling up beside the rapidly melting robot and allowing Boris and Ivan to clamber aboard. As they fly off, T-34's legs finally burn through, and the valiant (though ultimately flawed) robot slowly falls forward into the lava and disappears.
Back on safe ground, the five cosmonauts embrace and shake hands, greatly relieved that all are safe. They exchange some manly hugs and some lame unfunny jokes to hide their emotions (real men don't cry, especially in Stalinist Russia). I'm sure all this was a lot more effective in the original language, as it sounds a bit hokey dubbed. Now they can continue their exploration mission as a group.
They try and contact Marsha up in orbit, only to get no answer. Now another decision has to be made, and fast. Do they assume that Marsha has landed on the surface and travel on foot to try and find her, or do they assume that she's still in orbit, though out of radio contact, and take off to rendezvous with her in space? They can really only do one or the other.
Suddenly, word comes that contact with Marsha has been reestablished! It turns out that she was about to land when Professor Hartman ordered her to stay in orbit. So she's up there still and quite safe. Good, hate to have her actually interact with the rest of the cast...
"I'll just lie here and read my Tolstoy while you boys fight off the capitalist hoardes, ok?"
The nearby exploding volcano is now causing trouble, the lava flow is moving closer and the geologic forces are making the ground under the Sirius unstable. Clearly, they have to take off soon or they will be stuck on Venus forever. They rig the ship for "emergency blastoff", which means that they have to lighten the ship considerably. Why? How does an emergency blastoff differ from a regular blastoff? Ah, is it the extra weight of Boris and Ivan? With their suits, that's probably five hundred pounds or so (maybe more?) that they have to compensate for. So they have to unload a lot of silver metal boxes and crates. We don't know what's in them, maybe supplies, maybe scientific equipment, who knows. They also unload a trash can-sized "weather station", which might have been the plan all along, to set up an automated monitoring station for research.
The hatch on the weather station is stuck for some reason, and one of the cosmonauts (Vladimir, I think, who looks like Potsy from Happy Days) has to find something to bang it open with. The closest thing at hand is a softball-sized lump of rock that he picked up under the Venusian Sea (remember? No, well that's because I forgot to mention that at the time). He smacks it on the lock and it opens and he turns the weather station on. As he makes to run back to the ship, however, he notices that the rock is crumbling a bit now. He breaks off the rest of the loosened rock to reveal...an ivory-colored bust of a woman! The woman has a faintly Egyptian Nefertiti look to her, and seems to be wearing a headband or even a crown.
Vladimir is beside himself with happiness, leaping up and down and shouting to his comrades that they now have proof that the never-seen civilized inhabitants of Venus are "like us". I was really expecting him to run off to find these mystery people and be left behind on Venus, but he makes it to the ship's ladder and climbs aboard.
They kick the ladder away, dog the hatch shut, pour on the power and blastoff from the surface as the lava rushes in. All things considered, the mission was a mixed success. On the positive side, they explored a good hunk of Venus and proved that there's life in varied forms there (maybe even intelligent, human-like life). On the negative side, they lost Capella to the asteroid along with three men, and some material and scientific gear from the other two ships that had to be left behind, and the robot T-34 to the lava. The Russians are known for accepting huge losses to accomplish goals, so I bet these men got an impressive parade in Red Square when they got back to Mother Russia.
Not too bad, I must say. Unlike in Godzilla King of the Monsters, the added-in American bits didn't try to overwhelm the original material, but actually complemented what was already there. Now I really want to find a copy of the original Planeta Bur from 1962!
Written in November 2005 by Nathan Decker.
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