Red Banner Solar Fleet (USSR, 1981)

August 10, 2009

As with many of the films in crate two, the credits for Red Banner Solar Fleet are untranslated, the title and year coming from an enclosure in the first reel’s container. Mercifully the film itself is excellently subtitled, and the print is remarkably clear and crisp, even for a Crate 2 film.

The film opens with a fairly stirring shot of what is obviously a model of a spacestation against a still backdrop, but the modelwork itself is still impressive, resembling to a great extent the (in)famous Department of Automobile Roads of Georgia building, albeit festooned with antennae. A caption appears in teletype-style cyrillic; presumably, based on the dialogue, it’s letting us know that this is Solar HQ for the Red Banner Solar Fleet sometime in the early 21st century (subsequent dialogue leads me to believe about 2030).

The camera cuts to the inside of the station, which is perhaps unsurprisingly spacious and immaculate. Dr. Mary Jones, an American scientist, is coming aboard to conduct research, her own government not having any facilities adequate to the task. This is incidentally only the first of many subtle or not-so-subtle indications that the USA is now isolated and by far the poorer cousin to the Soviet-aligned nations of the world—later on in the film, we see a British spacecraft called the Harry Politt—but for all that, the movie’s tone is pretty gentle considering it was made during the height of the Cold War. Jones is greeted bySoviet officer Captain Alekseyev, who informs her that she is very fortunate: an extrasolar object has been detected passing by Pluto, and it is emitting radio signals that seem to be of intelligent origin. She will be on hand to witness humanity’s first contact with alien life. If she likes, Alekseyev will get her a spot on the “large solar rocket cruiser” (presumably an awkward translation of Russian term for a guided missile cruiser) Admiral Yumashev when it heads out to meet the object.

Dr. Jones is of course very interested in getting a seat on the Yumashev, but in exchange she insists that she be permitted to take Alekseyev out for dinner (“this is how it is in my country: you can’t do something for someone unless you get something in return”). What is obviously supposed to be a sort of charming interlude follows, as the two eat an ostensibly romantic meal consisting of various Russian dishes (Jones remarks that several of the food items, including, ironically enough, whole-wheat bread, are virtually unobtainable in the USA). Unfortunately both actors are a little wooden (though this may just my inability to grasp the subtleties of tone in the original Russian, vice the subtitled translations), and the scene goes overly long. That, however, is intentional, as Dr. Jones misses her chance to get aboard the Yumashev before she departs. Alekseyev consoles her by offering her a ride on his own ship, the small and fast “guard ship” (destroyer?) Vdumchivyy, which is acting as a sort of chase plane for the Yumashev.

The next scene is kind of a tour de force for the film; all the dialogue is in voiceover as we see the mammoth cruiser (which dwarfs the station) pull away, followed by the much smaller and sleeker destroyer. It’s clear that a lot of work went into the ships, and their hulls are covered with details like radomes, missile pods, thrusters, and (in a wonderful touch) escape pods swung out on davits, all of which we see as the camera loving pans across the ships’ hulls. It never for a moment looks like they aren’t models, but the craftsmanship is so impressive it’s hard to care.

This is a Soviet film, and in case you’d forgotten that, a large part of the voiceover is just Alekseyev talking about the training process for spaceship crews and how the ships operate. Mercifully this exposition is cut short(ish, it still takes a good ten or fifteen minutes) when the extrasolar object heaves into view. Through the miracle of forced perspective, it’s shown to be enormous in comparison to the Yumashev, and the Soviet hails to the object are greeted by a barrage of projectiles shaped like inverted eggs. They leave little spiralling plumes of smoke behind them as they rocket towards the cruiser, but mercifully, no wires are visible.

Back onboard the Vdumchivyy, Jones and Alekseyev watch in horror as the missiles (which a helpful technician informs us are kinetic weapons) punch holes in the Yumashev‘s hull, an effect achieved by a sort of white aerosol spray coming out of the sides of the model as she slowly rolls onto her side. (Exclaims Alekseyev: “She’s venting atmosphere!”)

Too small to stop the enemy on her own, the Vdumchivyy sends off a contact report (“to the Red Banner Solar Fleet”). Alekseyev, however, is a New Soviet Man, and he runs from no-one. (“We can’t stay, it’s too dangerous,” pleads Dr. Jones as she clings to his arm, but Alekseyev has no time for love.) If his tin can can’t outfight the attacker, he’s going to try and out think them. Evading wildly (accomplished by the simple expedient of shaking the camera and having the actors lurch around), he again tries to contact the extrasolar object. This time, the aliens respond.

The costume design for the aliens was actually pretty clever. They appeared to be encased in a sort of large dome-shaped fibreglass spacesuit with curious bulging protrusions and a ring of arms sticking out around the middle. The effect is a little cheesy, but props to the Russians for at least attempting a nonhuman alien. Anyway, the aliens inform the humans (in another almost interminable stretch of expository dialogue) that “billions of your years ago”, one of their freighters crashed into the earth, seeding it with life. Humankind apparently evolved from a sort of domestic pet, and now the aliens have come back to reclaim their property. They’re not really brooking any arguments, either; the Vdumchivyy has to dodge another fusillade of missiles when Alekseyev objects to being considered property-by-descent.

Dr. Jones is by now terrified. She demands to know what Alekseyev is stalling for; it’s clear to her that he’s just delaying the inevitable. By way of reply, a radar operator suddenly announces that the Red Banner Solar Fleet is now in range and closing fast. Alekseyev triumphantly indicates a viewscreen, and we see an actually quite impressive collection of model starships now bearing down on the extrasolar object and blazing away.

It’s pretty clear that the aliens have gotten more than they bargained for here, but as they try and flee, the Vdumchivyy intercepts them and delivers a blistering salvo at point blank range, causing the extrasolar object to turn into a rather anticlimactic series of pyrotechnics.

The aliens defeated, Jones and Alekseyev share a largely passionless embrace, and then Alekseyev invites Jones out for dinner, jokingly adding that “in my country, there’s no obligation attached, so…only if you want to!” Groan. Roll credits.

It seems, from what I’ve been able to ascertain from the documentation in the file cabinet accompanying Crate 2, that the Russians intended this to be their Star Trek series, a science-fiction franchise which could be marketed overseas and which would display the excellence of Soviet cinema. Obviously, things didn’t really work out.

Apparently, the film proved to be immensely expensive, and less of a hit with Russian audiences than anticipated. It didn’t help that American films like Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back were doing big business overseas, and quite frankly, Red Banner Solar Fleet’s effects can in no way compete with theirs. A good way to describe it would be if you had given very talented men a virtually unlimited budget with which to create the most epic 1970s-era Doctor Who special effects extravaganza they could imagine. Additionally, while Star Wars and Star Trek may not always have the most compelling actors, they can usually be relied upon to toss in a few scenery chewers to keep things at least interesting. Red Banner Solar Fleet’s performances are as sterile as the future it’s striving to evoke.

That being said, I’m sorry there were never sequels. I think once the series got on its feet, it could have produced some eminently watchable films. Word has it that the props are still extant, mouldering in a Volgograd warehouse. Maybe someday some Russian auteur will dig them out and fulfill that promise. A boy can dream…

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