Aelita (1924)

This week, I conclude my little “trilogy” of Mars-related films with the earliest of the lot, namely Russian Aelita (Аэлита), sometimes called Aelita – Queen of Mars. Even though it was made as early as 1924, it was not the first feature-length Mars film. That honour goes to the Danish film Himmelskibet (1918), but in many ways, the Russian film feels much more modern. For example, the Mars voyage is made with a rocket instead of a large bi-plane!

Yuliya Solntseva showcasing Martian fashion in Aelita - Queen of Mars (1924)

Aelita was loosely based on a book by Aleksei Tolstoy. This may seem surprising to those who do not perceive Tolstoy as a science fiction writer, but that is because there were actually two writers by the same name (and also the even more well-known Leo Tolstoy). At any rate, though science fiction is somewhat thematically important to the plot, it is actually more about domestic life in the Soviet Union than about space travel and Mars. It holds many allegorical and propagandistic messages, and one of them seems to be that one should strive for the good of society, rather than useless stuff like space travel. The film has been accused both of being pro-revolutionary and anti-revolutionary. At any rate, it is not quite as simple in this regard as it may at first seem.

For the modern viewer who expects a science fiction masterpiece (which it is, to some extent), the ending must be admitted to be somewhat anti-climactic and dissatisfying. Said ending does have several other qualities, however, and should not be entirely dismissed in terms of character development and bringing closure to some aspects of the story. I will not reveal the details in advance, but expect some abruptness in the final twists.

This film is best enjoyed for its groundbreaking and fantastic use of sets and costume. It has been strongly influential, directly and indirectly, on a large number of Western sci-fi films, including Flight to Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Konstantin Eggert and Yuri Zavadsky in Aelita - Queen of Mars (1924)

Aelita
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Yakov Protazanov
Stars: Yuliya Solntseva, Igor Ilyinsky
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (712×520)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (988 M)

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The Crystal Egg (1951)

Normally, I do not include films that are considerably less than 40 minutes in length, but I am going to make an exception for The Crystal Egg. Partly, I do this because it is the only screen adaptation I have seen of a very good story by H.G. Wells (Wikipedia says that it was also adapted for a 2001 TV series, but I suspect that one may be hard to find), but also because it is an example of what American sci-fi fans could watch on television in the early 1950s.

Thomas Mitchell and Edgar Stehli in Tales of Tomorrow: The Crystal Egg (1951) by H.G. Wells

Specifically, it is an episode from the first season (out of two) of the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow. Tales of Tomorrow was all science fiction, usually based on literary sources. Famous examples include Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (not available at the Internet Archive) and Frankenstein. Like most early television, it was broadcast live.

The Crystal Egg is the story about an antique shop owner who asks his friend to help him examine a strange crystal egg. The egg turns out to produce strange images that can only come from the planet Mars. In the episode (but not in the original story) there is also a mysterious stranger who wants the egg for himself. The TV episode makes a number of changes to Wells’ story, but in my opinion these are tastefully executed in order to make the story suited for the short TV format.

Tales of Tomorrow is notorious because of the uneven quality of its actors. The Crystal Egg illustrates this well. Thomas Mitchell is good as Professor Vaneck (Mr. Wace in the original story), whereas Sally Gracie as his girlfriend can barely remember her few lines. Little problems like this shine through very clearly in a live broadcast, but today it must be considered part of the charm of old-time television.

Another problem is image quality. Old television shows with good images are practically non-existent. This is because video technology had not yet been invented, so episodes had to be filmed from a television screen, when they were preserved at all.

Wells’ story is good enough to be interesting in itself, but also because there is a neverending debate among fans and scholars as to whether Wells intended it as a “prequel” to his famous novel The War of the Worlds. We shall never know whether he did, but it is always fun to speculate.

This episode is best enjoyed as an introduction to Tales of Tomorrow. If you like it, a few dozen more episodes, including radio shows, are available. Many actors appear that either were famous already (e.g. Boris Karloff), or were to become famous (e.g. Paul Newman).

Saturn seen from Mars in Tales of Tomorrow: The Crystal Egg (1951) by H.G. Wells

The Crystal Egg
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Year: 1951
Running time: 24 min
Director: Charles S. Dubin
Stars: Thomas Mitchell
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (620×480; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (432 M)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

The term “Mars curse” originally referred to a large number of failed Mars space missions, but has lately come to be more associated with a line of box office crashes for movies connected with the red planet. In reality, of course, the “curse” is just Hollywood’s lame excuse for a combination of bad movies and bad marketing. In any event, Ridley Scott’s The Martian now seems to have lifted the “curse”, so perhaps this opens the gates for more Mars films in the future?

The past has certainly seen its share, and the Internet Archive has a number of interesting movies with a Mars connection. I have written about several of them in the past, and will doubtlessly have reason to come back to others in the future. One of them happens to be a film which is thematically very closely related to The Martian, namely Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Paul Mantee in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

In this film, Paul Mantee plays the astronaut Cristopher Draper, who is stranded on Mars after a near collision with an asteroid forces him to abandon his spaceship. His only companion on the planet is the monkey Mona.

Scientifically, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was not terribly accurate even when it was made. This incarnation of the planet has the Martian version of aurora borealis, even though Mars has no magnetic field to produce such a phenomenon, and considerable volcanic activity. I find this easy to oversee with, as also with the nationalistic and religious fervour which sometimes shines through.

Throughout the first hour we follow Draper’s struggle for survival through a combination of luck and inventiveness (and a dose of divine providence). In spite of very slow pacing, this was the part I liked best about the film. Even though we know today that no-one could walk around on Mars in a t-shirt, taking the occasional sip from his oxygen tank, it is nevertheless fascinating to see how the protagonist manages to overcome what initially appears to be insurmountable obstacles. After that first hour the plot takes a sudden twist, unfortunately somewhat for the worse. The last part remains enjoyable, but is somewhat more taxing on the willingness to suspend disbelief.

This film is best enjoyed for the good camerawork and for several very nice matte paintings, combining to create a fascinating and partly alien Martian landscape.

The twin moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Download link
Year: 1964
Running time: 1 h 50 min
Director: Byron Haskins
Stars: Paul Mantee
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (720×306; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.6 G)

I am back!

After a hiatus of over three months, I have moved myself and my family to a differnt town and this blog is now officially back in business! I cannot presently say whether I will be posting regularly every week (especially considering that much of the household is still in boxes), but I will make this my ambition for the time being.