The Heavens Call/Nebo Zovyot (1959) ***½
In 1959, the Soviet Union was unquestionably the world’s foremost nation in the novel field of space exploration. True, even the Russians’ greatest successes up to that time required a very lenient reading of the term “exploration,” but the Soviets were still way ahead of the game in developing the necessary tools and techniques. They’d had an artificial satellite in orbit for two years, even if it didn’t really do anything. Their first three unmanned moon launches accomplished their missions: the first to fly by, the second to crash-land on the lunar surface, and the third to make a U-turn around the moon’s far side and beam back a few photographs on the return swing. Meanwhile, NASA’s rockets were consistently blowing up on the launch pad or failing to achieve escape velocity. Considering that this was a country that had only begun industrializing with any seriousness just two generations before, Russia’s leading role in transatmospheric and interplanetary rocketry amounted to an astonishing triumph, and a certain degree of smugness and horn-tooting was most assuredly justified. The Heavens Call is not so much a toot on the horn as a prolonged and full-throated blast. Some will no doubt find its boosteristic tone grating, but this is a movie that every fan of 1980’s Hollywood jingoism really ought to see. After all, how often does one get to experience the opposite of a Rocky IV or a Rambo III?
Actually, that isn’t an entirely fair comparison, for what most distinguishes The Heavens Call is its sobriety, and its token attempts at even-handedness, while still plainly tokens, are a good deal more convincing than their counterparts in such later American-made flag-wavers. It begins with a curious form of framing story, which I’m tempted to interpret as an ass-covering measure on the filmmakers’ parts. A reporter named Troyan (S. Filimonov) stops in at the rocket base where Dr. Yevgeny Kornev (Ivan Pereverzev, from The Magic Voyage of Sinbad and The Mystery of the Eternal Night) makes his professional home, looking to interview the scientist about his work. After receiving a tour of the facility (note the replica of Sputnik 1 among the mock-ups in Kornev’s workshop) and meeting a few of Kornev’s colleagues, Troyan sets to work writing something rather more imaginative than the typical newspaper piece. “Here— see?” the movie seems to be saying, “Troyan’s just blue-skying about stuff that maybe could happen, if things keep progressing along their current course. Is that Socialist Realism enough for you? Can we please get on to the fucking good part now?”
In Troyan’s flight of fancy, Kornev is still in charge of the space program, only now he’s doing far more than launching round, beeping things into orbit. Kornev has presided over the construction of an orbital space port— a more developed version of a design he had shown Troyan in the real world— which is now the key way-station for nearly every venture into the farther depths of space. Together with space pilots Andrei Gordienko (The Sword and the Dragon’s Aleksandr Shvorin) and Grisha Somov (V. Chernyak), Kornev, Troyan, and a young, female doctor named Lena (Taisiya Litvinenko) are about to embark for that space port in preparation for a groundbreaking new mission. The rocketship Rodina— “Motherland”— is almost ready for its maiden voyage, which will be nothing less than a manned mission to Mars. Kornev and his companions aren’t the only visitors about to arrive at the orbital base, however. The space port is open to astronauts of all nations, and the American rocket Typhoon is on its way, crewed by a legendary astronaut called Clark (Konstantin Bartashevich, also from The Mystery of the Eternal Night) and the infamous broadcast journalist Verst (Gurgen Tonunts, from The Tale of the Tsar Saltan).
Clark’s notoriety stems from his ardent risk-taking and nearly suicidal bravery. Though he is no longer a young man, his willingness to face any danger makes him the American space agency’s first choice to head up its most hazardous undertakings, so the bare fact that he’s piloting the Typhoon suggests that something big is up. That’s quite an understatement, as it happens. As Verst reveals at the reception dinner Kornev and his staff throw for their international visitors, the Typhoon is to leave in a week or two for Mars. NASA has not publicly announced the goal for this mission because its chief, an unseen man known as Harding, wishes to spring the Mars landing on the world as an accomplished fact, magnifying the event’s impact upon world opinion. Clark— and Verst even more so— are taken aback when Kornev reveals that he, too, is going to Mars, and that his vessel is scheduled to launch in a matter of days. That puts the Russians ahead of NASA, and Verst almost immediately radios home to Harding with the news. Harding just about blows a gasket. Under no circumstances will he allow Kornev to steal a march on him, and he gives Verst orders to relay to Clark to the effect that the Typhoon is to blast off at once. To do so is to multiply an already considerable risk, however, for the Typhoon is a smaller rocket than the Rodina, and carries significantly less fuel. The ship’s original launch date was calculated to coincide with Mars’s closest approach to the space station, and pushing the schedule ahead cuts dangerously deep into the vessel’s maneuvering reserves. Unless everything goes exactly right, the Typhoon will be unable to return home from the Red Planet, and any serious setback will likely prevent the rocketship from ever reaching its goal in the first place. Clark raises these concerns when Verst passes along Harding’s new directive, but he grudgingly clams up when the reporter impugns his courage. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the American astronauts who are imperiled by Harding’s glory-mongering. Such is Verst’s hurry to be off that he won’t even wait for the launch crew to clear the takeoff deck, and Grisha Somov, who was supposed to pilot the Rodina on its voyage to Mars, is wounded by the heat and shock of the Typhoon’s ignition.
Somov’s injuries are such that Lena forbids him to leave the space port until he is fully recovered. That puts him out of action for the forthcoming launch, and so the task of accompanying Kornev to Mars devolves upon Andrei Gordienko instead. No one but Gordienko is terribly pleased with this state of affairs, but there’s nothing else to be done. Aside from the last-minute change of crew, everything goes smoothly until the Rodina is within sight of its destination. That’s when Kornev and Gordienko pick up the transmission from Clark. The Americans’ takeoff was indeed too hasty, and course corrections have left the Typhoon without enough fuel to reach Mars. Worse yet, the Typhoon is still offcourse, headed straight for the sun, on a trajectory that will take it first through a dense meteor field. The prospects for Clark and Verst are looking pretty grim: they can be battered to pieces by the drifting space rubble, they can plunge to a fiery death in the nuclear furnace of the sun, or if they somehow escape both those dooms, they can drift aimlessly through the infinite void until they die of natural causes. Kornev is not about to let any of those things happen, though. It will mean a longer stay on Mars than was contemplated in the mission plan, but the Rodina has enough fuel in its tanks to veer off and rescue the Americans; the ship just won’t be able to go home until somebody on Earth can send out a replenishment rocket.
Actually, even that proves to be a little over-optimistic. The rescue uses up more fuel than Kornev anticpated, and the Rodina can’t quite make it to Mars now, either. Luckily, the asteroid Icarus is close by, offering a passable emergency landing site. Icarus travels faster through space than Mars does, however, so the window of opportunity in which the folks back home might be able to bail out the stranded cosmonauts is a narrow one. The first attempt ends in almost total failure. The Russians dispatch an unmanned fuel rocket in the direction of Icarus, with the idea in mind that Kornev and Gordienko will be able to guide it to a soft landing with the Rodina’s radar rig. Instead, the fuel rocket crashes directly into one of the dishes, which the cosmonauts had set up on a nearby pinnacle of rock. It falls to Grisha Somov to make the rescue, although he does so at the cost of his own life. Exactly what happens is confusing in the extreme, but I think he takes advantage of the space port’s shallower gravity well (as compared to the Earth’s) to make room for himself inside what was designed to be another unmanned rocket, enabling him to pilot it to a safe landing on Icarus. However, because that rocket was not intended for human occupancy, the compartment in which he rides is not sufficiently shielded against cosmic rays, and Somov receives a lethal dose of radiation by the time he reaches the asteroid. In any case, the festivities attendant upon the Rodina’s successful return are counterpointed by three somber notes: the heroic self-sacrifice of the man who was supposed to have been its pilot, the failure of the cosmonauts to accomplish their original mission, and the knowledge that every single one of the calamities that befell both the Rodina and Typhoon crews could have been avoided were it not for men like Harding turning the serious business of conquering space into an arena of childish one-upmanship.
The Heavens Call was almost certainly the most intricately conceived and beautifully executed science fiction movie since Forbidden Planet, which its production design echoes in a number of respects. In both tone and subject matter, however, it more closely resembles the somewhat earlier cycle of American hard sci-fi movies, spanning roughly the period between 1950 and 1954. Long after US filmmakers had moved on to bug-eyed monsters and invasions from other worlds, The Heavens Call (as its title implies) is content to play up the inspirational qualities of space travel in and of itself. This, after all, was to be the great human adventure of the 20th century, its implications seemingly dwarfing those of the earlier age of exploration which had finally wound down about 50 years before. It makes considerable sense, too, that the Russians could hold onto that visionary fervor for the reality of space flight, at a time when American sci-fi was retreating ever further into a form of technology-driven fantasy. For one thing, movies like The Heavens Call were backed by the Soviet government, which had strong, practical reasons for wanting its people’s imaginations focused on what might be genuinely possible. But beyond any ulterior political motives, Russia’s flirtation with hard sci-fi came at a much more opportune time than did America’s. The Heavens Call was much less fictional in 1959 than Destination Moon or Project Moonbase had been in their day. Hollywood’s early-50’s space-travel scenarios played out against the real-world backdrop of a bumbling struggle to bring American rocketry up to the level the Germans had reached during World War II; The Heavens Call coincided with Luna 3 showing Earthlings the far side of the moon for the first time since there were any Earthlings to see it. By the time NASA achieved basic competency in transatmospheric flight, the American popular imagination had already moved on to more exciting possibilities, and reality has never been able to keep pace since.
But perhaps even more than a summons to strive toward new horizons, The Heavens Call is a commentary on the nascent space race, and it is in that capacity that it is most thought-provoking. The contest for supremacy in rocketry and other space-related technologies was in a sense the polite public face of the Cold War, and now that the battle is over, it is instructive to hear the tale of it told from the other side. This movie openly criticizes the American framing of the issue as a contest in the first place, dismissing as puerile the underlying desire for the prestige of being number one. And it is puerile— but that didn’t stop Khrushchev from forcing a massive (and, in some areas, crippling) dislocation of his country’s agricultural sector in order to make the Soviet Union the world’s number-one producer and exporter of milk in the 1960’s, or indeed from shifting the focus of the Russian space program to the mechanized exploration of Mars and Venus (fields in which it had enjoyed some early successes) when it became obvious that the US was going to succeed in putting a man on the moon first even despite the most heroic exertions of the Soviet space agency. Meanwhile, it’s easy enough for those who are ranked at the top of their fields to argue that everyone else should be content with their lower positions. In the final assessment, geopolitics itself has never been much more than one huge, worldwide pissing contest, and with that in mind, national prestige matters. Where The Heavens Call becomes intriguing is in the specific terms on which it condemns American competitiveness. It is not the astronaut Clark (whom we may perhaps take as a stand-in for the common American, playing his role in society to the best of his ability, ambition, and imagination) at whom the film looks askance, reckless though he may be. In fact, there is a scene between Clark and Kornev shortly before the Typhoon’s departure in which we see that latter man respects and honestly sort of admires the former, even though he finds his daredevil attitude mystifying. And when the hastily rescheduled NASA Mars mission goes to hell, Clark faces his almost certain death with the stolid determination of a true hero. No, what comes under attack here are the politicians and the press, as exemplified by Harding and Verst, with their constant pandering to the public’s appetite for sensation. Speaking as an American, and as one who remembers vividly the pointless publicity stunt that claimed the life of schoolteacher-turned-astronaut Christa McAuliffe in 1986, I can’t help but feel that the makers of The Heavens Call had our number to a greater extent than we might like to admit.