Planet of Storms / Cosmonauts on Venus / Planeta Burg / Planeta Bur (1962) **½
If there’s one thing of which movie history has absolutely no shortage, it’s stories of capable, even brilliant, personalities whom the industry chewed up and spat out in pieces, stars both in front of and behind the camera who died penniless and forgotten decades after carving what seemed at the time like an indelible mark on the medium. Remarkably, it isn’t only in infamously ruthless and short-sighted Hollywood that that’s true, either. Even the Soviet movie industry has its neglected sometime heroes— and not just the ones who fell victim to Stalin’s sociopathic 29-year bloodbath of a reign. Writer/director Pavel Klushantsev was one such man. He had been working on his sprawling epic of space exploration, The Road to the Stars, for nearly four years when the successful launch of Sputnik 1 suddenly transformed it into the highest-priority filmmaking project in Russia, and for most of the next decade, he was one of his nation’s busiest and most respected directors. But as NASA pulled ahead in the space race during the late 1960’s, Klushantsev’s movies started to look less like inspiring clarion calls to glorious future achievement, and more like embarrassing illustrations of precisely what the Soviet space agency was failing to accomplish in the real world. One of his later works actually had its official release cancelled in response to the successful American moon landing! By the time of his death in 1999, Klushantsev was just another flat-broke old man, and the bitter irony that this former visionary had gone blind in his dotage was most likely appreciated by no one save whichever longtime friends he hadn’t yet managed to outlive. (89 years is well in excess of current Russian life expectancies, after all.) And as the final cosmic insult, the most widely seen of Klushantsev’s films got most of its circulation in the form of two re-edited versions overseen by Roger Corman, with the original creators’ names expunged from the credits. Planet of Storms may have received years’ worth of late-night and weekend-afternoon airplay on American television in the 60’s and 70’s, but it did so first as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, and later on as Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. The former reworking was at least relatively faithful to the original; the latter had Mamie Van Doren as a pterosaur-worshipping mermaid from outer space.
The Russian version of Planet of Storms surprisingly gets underway much more rapidly than either American edit. Were it not for the presence of the main titles, credits, and an opening crawl explaining that actual conditions on the surface of Venus are at present unknown (“You hear that, Gosfilm? We’re speculating! Now leave us the fuck alone!”), you might guess that there was a reel missing at the beginning. Three Russian spaceships— the Vega, the Sirius, and the Catella— are nearing the end of the four-month flight to Venus when the Catella is destroyed without warning by a large and fast-moving meteor. Both the crews of the other two ships and the announcer for the TASS radio news service are stunned out of their exuberant moods by the sudden tragedy, and of at least equal importance, the destruction of the third vessel puts a major kink in the mission plan. Originally, two ships were to set down on Venus while the third remained in orbit. The six cosmonauts of the landing crews would explore for as long as their supplies held out, and then exhaust their ships’ remaining fuel lifting off from the alien world and rendezvousing with their comrades in orbit; the same quantity of fuel necessary for blastoff from Venus would suffice to send all nine crewmembers home in a single vessel, together with all of their data recorders and environmental samples. Obviously that setup isn’t going to work with only two ships remaining.
The folks back on Earth initially decide to launch a fourth spaceship, the Arcturus, to take the Catella’s place, but that’s hardly the ideal answer. It will take another four months for the Arcturus to reach Venus, leaving the Vega and Sirius crews exposed to the hazards of space the entire time. The cosmonauts themselves would much prefer to come up with a revised mission plan and get the job done without reinforcements. Aboard the Sirius, mission commander Ilya Vershinin (I Was a Sputnik of the Sun’s Vladimir Yemelyanov) consults with his subordinates, Roman Bobrov (Georgi Zhyonov, of The Road to Saturn) and Alexei Nolastnamesky (Gennadi Vernov), and hits upon the Vega’s transatmospheric glider as a means of landing crews from both vessels while still leaving a ship in orbit to get everybody home. Meanwhile, Allan Kern (Georgi Teikh, from Solaris), the civilian scientist who has been detailed to the Vega crew, programs John, the experimental robot whose first field test the Venus landing was to be, to evaluate Vershinin’s scheme in detail. John calculates that the best approach will be for two human cosmonauts from the Vega to accompany it aboard the glider while the Sirius sets down at a landing site selected by the glider crew. The five humans will abandon John on Venus when they make their return to orbit in order to save weight aboard the single ship. Masha Ivanova (Kyunna Ignatova), the Vega’s communications officer, isn’t happy with the arrangement, which will require her to stay up in space to maintain the link with Earth— this is partly because it means separation from her lover, Vega captain Ivan Shcherba (Yuri Serantsev, from The Aquanauts and The Ghosts of the Green Room), and partly because she hates the idea of being the only one who won’t get to see Venus from the ground. Nevertheless, she understands that there’s no other sensible way.
Complications arise before the glider has even made landfall. Turbulence in Venus’s atmosphere greatly exceeds the estimates of the engineers who designed the glider, and it gets blown off-course shortly after John identifies a likely landing site for the Sirius. The last thing the other four cosmonauts hear from the glider team before contact is lost is John estimating the chances of their surviving a landing at the best place that they can still reach at a mere 10%. Now instead of studying Venus, the Sirius crew’s primary objective will be to rescue Shcherba and Kern— assuming, of course, that they’re still alive to be rescued. The good news is, Ivanova soon detects a moving metal object on the surface, not far from a much larger stationary one; these can only be John and the mostly intact hull of the glider. The bad news is, Venus is a hostile environment indeed. In addition to the storms and volcanic activity, there are carnivorous plants, dinosaurs, and swamps full of ferocious lizard-men, to say nothing of the mysterious hints of intelligent habitation that almost immediately begin surfacing once the cosmonauts make landfall.
As I said in my review of Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, it’s basically The Angry Red Planet with a bigger budget and the setting switched from Mars to Venus, and Corman’s editors mostly preserved the character of the original in their first restructuring. Relatively little of the Russian footage was cut out, and the American-made inserts surprisingly don’t change much, either in terms of plotline or in terms of overall flavor. Marsha Evans, Faith Domergue’s character in Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, corresponds almost exactly to Masha Ivanova (who was excised to make room for her), even to the extent of bearing a phonetically similar name. (The exactness of that correspondence, incidentally, becomes doubly interesting when one considers how much more respectfully women were typically treated in Soviet sci-fi movies than in their Western counterparts. Masha, in sharp contrast to the norm, is every bit as weepy, eratic, and undependable as Marsha.) The interpolated scenes on Basil Rathbone’s moonbase essentially just put a face on the transmissions from Earth that we occasionally hear over the Vega’s radio in Planet of Storms. The actors don’t seem all that much more convincing even with the original voice track, although the subtitled translations come across as far more sensible than the god-awful dialogue in the American dub. (And I imagine I missed plenty of nuances, anyway, since I know only a few words of Russian, most of them either political, technical, or obscene.) What might be the biggest shock, though, is that there turns out to be almost none of the pro-Soviet cheerleading that caused American International Pictures so many headaches when trying to render The Heavens Call (which the studio acquired along with Planet of Storms) palatable to US sensibilities. But for all that, there are nonetheless some noticeable differences in both pacing and tone between Planet of Storms and its American doppelgangers. Planet of Storms is rather slower on average, and occasionally becomes exasperating because of it. There’s a bit of humor in the original that didn’t make it into either US version, which is rather strange when you think about it. And most importantly, Planet of Storms is a much more philosophically inclined film, with the cosmonauts frequently taking time out from their explorations to consider and discuss the implications of what they’ve seen on Venus. I can see why Roger Corman would have little patience with that stuff, but it’s actually of vital importance to the picture. The significance of the epilogue is almost completely lost without it, and other scenes (most notably the discovery of the underwater ruins) have substantially less impact when divorced from any examination of what the cosmonauts expected to find. Still, seeing Planet of Storms at last has confirmed my impression that it was treated more or less fairly in its conversion into Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. It is by no means a great movie, but it is effective enough that the favorable reception it reportedly won from Soviet audiences seems mainly warranted. Now if only we could get a few of Klushantsev’s other flicks released over here without a bunch of Hollywood B- and C-listers shoehorned into them…