Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924)

Hi, everybody, it’s Pam, back with yet another fine movie. I had such a good time reviewing Queen of Atlantis that I thought I’d continue the theme of mysterious queens in silent movies by reviewing this one. It was made in Russia in 1924, but it wasn’t very popular when it was released, and changing times in Russia soon made it unacceptable to the powers-that-be, so it dropped out of sight and was hard to find for many years.

The movie starts in a Moscow radio station, where a message in an unknown language has just been received. There’s some odd-looking equipment in this radio station, and I have no idea if this is in fact what a radio station in Moscow looked like in 1924, or if the people who made this movie figured nobody else would know either and just threw together a bunch of equipment at random. Where could this message have come from? Could it possibly have come from…Mars?

Says here this movie is too long.

Yes, it did. The Martians have been observing Earth, or at least Russia, for some time. Why? We’ll find out eventually, but for now we see some of Mars’ citizens going about their business. We get to meet Tuskub, the ruler of Mars, a middle-aged man who looks bad-tempered and always seems to be glaring at something; Gor, “Guardian of the planet’s energy,” a younger, nicer-looking man who favors sheets of Lucite for clothing; and Aelita, the Queen of Mars. Aelita has impressive, almost Frida Kahlo-level, eyebrows, and she wears a spiky headdress that must pose some danger to any of her subjects who get too close. Gor is not the only Martian who has strange taste in clothing: all the Martians wear odd-looking angular clothing and use uncomfortable-looking angular furniture, both reminiscent of Cubist paintings. This is not an accident; both the Martian sets and the Martian clothing were designed by Aleksandra Ekster, a noted artist of the time who favored the Cubist style.

Damn, girl, got to shave that off.

Gor is the one who built a telescope so the Martians could observe life on other planets. However, Tuskub doesn’t want to share the fun with the other Martians and orders Gor to keep it a secret. Gor reluctantly agrees, but it seems Aelita already knows about the telescope and begs for a peek. Gor either can’t resist those eyebrows, or he’s afraid she’ll stab him with her headdress, and he agrees to meet with her secretly that night and let her look through the telescope. Oh, boy. At this point it’s not clear if Tuskub and Aelita are married or just some kind of co-ruler, but I sense trouble ahead - and it’s probably going to come pretty quickly, because Tuskub overheard them.

Aelita at the lens.

So that night, Gor and Aelita sneak off to the telescope, and Aelita is introduced to the wonders of Earth. Actually, I’m learning a little about the wonders of 1924 Earth myself, such as streetcars and lots and lots of Russians bundled into shapeless winter clothing. As it happens, what we’re shown of life in the Soviet Union seems pretty grim, with severe overcrowding and food shortages. I’m surprised something like this would be shown in the Soviet Union, especially since some of the characters mention that times before the Revolution were much better.

The telescope in action.

By an amazing coincidence, Aelita just happens to zoom in on Loss, the head engineer of the Russian radio station that received the message from Mars, and she’s smitten. In the meantime, the message has inspired Loss to build a spaceship so he can go to Mars, and radio engineers in the Soviet Union must have been given some very special training in the early 1920s, because he actually manages to do this. However, he doesn’t do it quickly, and before we get to thrilling adventures in outer space, we learn an awful lot about Loss’ personal life (he and his wife are having difficulties), and the general bleakness of life in the Soviet Union. According to this movie, the sufferings of the everyday Russian citizen were all that 1950s American anti-Communists claimed they were.

We can't even afford color!

On Mars, things aren’t so great, either. Aelita has no power at all, and a good portion of the Martian population are slaves – stacked like cordwood in refrigerators and kept there until needed. Oh, and Gor is aware that Aelita’s fallen in love with Loss, and he’s jealous. He wrecks his telescope so Aelita can’t see her crush. In turn, Loss has been neglecting his wife while he builds his rocket, and she’s beginning to take an interest in another man.

Too much gossip.

Loss’ friend Spiridonov (they were both played by the same actor, as a matter of fact) was helping him with the spaceship, but Spiridonov can no longer take the bleakness of life in the Soviet Union and he leaves the country. That, plus the stress of his marital problems, really gets to Loss, and he unfortunately vents by shooting his wife. There were no witnesses, and for now he’s not a suspect since everybody thinks he’s working out of town, but he wants to go to Mars more than ever. To achieve his goal, he disguises himself as Spiridonov with a wig and a false beard he just happens to have on hand (it pays to think ahead, kids), and he goes to oversee the work on the spaceship. At long last the ship is ready, and, accompanied by a friend who’s bored with life in Moscow plus a comic-relief character who happened to wander in at the last moment, Loss sets forth to the Red Planet. It seems that you have to hand-crank Loss’ spaceship to start it, just like a Model T.

At least he has his rat in a box still.

Gor must have rebuilt his telescope, because the Martians see the spaceship coming. Aelita begs Tuskub not to hurt them, but he insists they’re a threat to Mars and must be killed. However, Aelita is not going to sit around and wait for the Earthlings to be killed, especially her beloved Loss. She and her maid go to the observatory, Aelita gives her maid a knife, the maid kills the astronomer on duty (!), and Aelita helps herself to the telescope to see where the Earth spaceship is landing. I get the feeling Aelita might not be the nicest person.

The maid has her eyes on the crown, as well.

Aelita is overjoyed to see the landing of the Earth spaceship. You’ll recall she already saw Loss and seemed to be attracted to him. Aelita sends her maid to get the Earthmen and bring them to her, which the maid does. She brings Loss and his friend to Aelita, but the comic-relief guy wanders off before they get to Aelita and is picked up by Tuskub’s guards. Aelita is unimpressed by the friend, but when her eyes meet Loss’, it’s passion! They kiss, and without further ado, Loss carries Aelita off to a very hard-looking bed, whereupon the screen modestly goes black. In case you’re feeling sorry for the friend, cheer up, he and the maid seem to be hitting it off pretty well.

The Queen needs a better stylist.

However, we need to turn away from the romance for a bit. The dead astronomer (remember him?) has been found, and the maid carelessly left her necklace at the crime scene. While Aelita and Loss are busy canoodling, Tuskub’s guards lead the maid away. From the look on the guards’ faces, torture is a standard part of the treatment of criminals, but luckily for the maid, Loss’ friend has been trailing along behind, and he starts fighting with the guards before they do anything painful to the maid.

Off to the crystal shard room.

It seems sex has a peculiar effect on Aelita. In her post-coital bliss, she proposes to Loss that he and she rule over Mars together. But something else odd happens: suddenly it’s his wife Loss is kissing, not Aelita. Then Aelita is back, Tuskub appears with a couple of guards and arrests Aelita, and Loss’ friend suddenly appears in Aelita’s room, lighting a fuse on a bomb! Then Loss and his friend are haranguing a bunch of slaves, while Aelita is looking angry! Then Aelita waves her arm and says she’ll lead the slaves in revolt! The print quality is too poor for me to be sure, but it appears that Aelita doesn’t shave her armpits. Then the friend says he doesn’t believe a Queen would really lead a revolution! Then the slaves attack Tuskub and the guards! Then, once Tuskub is down, Aelita orders the guards to put the rebels into cold storage! All this is happening in just about the same amount of time it takes to read this. Finally, Loss pushes Aelita – no, it’s his wife – off a platform! What’s going on?

Mobs of Martians on the march.

Yep, the filmmakers have gone Dallas on us. Loss finds himself back in Russia, and it turns out everything after he shot his wife was a dream. In fact, a few things before he shot his wife are a dream: the mysterious radio message was an advertising stunt, and it was only the trademark of a company that sells tires. And Loss didn’t shoot his wife after all, he only shot at her. His wife isn’t even mad at him (!!!) All is forgiven. Loss burns his designs for the spaceship (apparently that wasn’t a dream), and he settles down to be a good little citizen of the Soviet Union. What a cheat.

Smashmouth kissing the Queen.

As you’ve figured out, this movie really has nothing to do with science fiction. A lot of the running time is taken up with showing relationship difficulties between various couples. There’s also an unfunny subplot about a bumbling would-be detective that I’ve spared you. The hardships of life in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and the corruption of many of its citizens are depicted in great detail, which probably explains why the movie soon sank into obscurity and was no longer shown in the Soviet Union. I was wondering why it was ever shown at all, even with Loss seeing the light at the end and resolving to be a good Communist in the future, but another review of this movie cleared that up. It seems all the bad stuff shown in the movie happened before Lenin instituted his New Economic Policy, so once the policy went into effect by the end of the movie, everything in the Soviet Union was supposed to be peachy. Unfortunately I, and apparently most of the viewers in 1924, didn’t pick up on this and was under the impression things were as bad as ever. It wasn’t a flattering picture of the Soviet Union.

Not even worth looking up for.

I didn’t like it any better than the audiences in 1924. I thought I was going to be watching a science fiction movie, and what I ended up seeing was boring even for a political movie. It didn’t help that the print available on Youtube was of poor quality. I don’t recommend watching it unless you want to see the Cubist clothing and furniture.

And staircases, lots of staircases.

The End.

Written in March 2016 by Pam Burda.

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