Tuesday, November 20, 2012

First Spaceship on Venus (1960) – MST3K Review


Summary:

In the middle of the Gobi desert a mysterious magnetic object is found. The world’s scientists rush in to determine the origins and meaning of the object. Dr. Yu (Tang Hua-Ta) and Professor Sikarna (Kurt Rackelmann) identify the object as a communication from the planet Venus. The message is damaged, so the scientists don’t know exactly what it says, but it is enough to get an expedition ready to head out to Venus and communicate back.

Luckily an East German rocket called the Cosmostrator has been created for a trip to Mars. The leaders of the world decide to go to Venus instead and assemble a crackerjack crew. This includes medical expert Sumiko Ogimura (Yoko Tani) and daredevil German pilot Raimund Brinkmann (Gunther Simon). Soon the journey begins, past an asteroid shower and then exploring the surface of the Venus. But along the way, Yu and Sikarna discover that the message was an invasion plan intended for the Venusian’s high command. Will the First Spaceship on Venus be seen as a visit of friendship or an act of war?

Movie Review:
With science fiction films being big crowd pleasers in the 1950s thanks to movies like Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still, it was only a matter of time before other countries jumped on the bandwagon to create their own visions of space travel and interstellar adventures. I was familiar with a couple of the Japanese efforts, usually featuring giant rubbery creatures, but it wasn’t until recently that I saw efforts from behind the iron curtain.

I reviewed the English adaptation of one re-titled Voyage to the Prehistoric Plant (and it’s badly re-edited sibling Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women). This Russian film had a very similar plot to First Spaceship on Venus and had a very similar scope and visual style. What sets this film apart is the attempt to make a unifying world effort out of the whole endeavor. Time and again, we are told how the “world’s scientists” or the “world’s leaders” have come together to accept this challenge. In many ways this looks forward to the world of Star Trek with it’s unified world looking to explore it’s surroundings. I also like how it leads to the truly international crew with members from China, India, Japan, Africa (never say what country in Africa), America, Russia, France and Germany. Each member has a specialty that comes into play during the voyage, and some even make the ultimate sacrifice to save their fellow crewmates and possibly the earth.

One of the elements about this movie that I really appreciate is the design. From the pointy yet super cool looking Cosmostrator, to the weird and funky surface of Venus the movie has plenty of interesting visuals to reveal. Sure not all of it works. The space suits used while the crew is in the main ship look really silly. But the ones used to explore Venus’ surface are colorful and more functional. The robot Omega (who none of the dub actors can pronounce with any consistency) looks pretty silly rolling around the ship, but he seems a bit more useful on the surface of the planet. There are smaller craft used to explore Venus, from mini-rockets, two person cars and a strange gyrocopter. All are very creative looking and would have made some great toys.

First Spaceship on Venus does seem to borrow from some earlier films, with the look of Forbidden Planet really seeming to influence the ship and spacesuits. Also, just about every movie that contained a rocket hurtling anywhere would wind up coming across a meteor shower. So that little plot point seems stale. The robot talks like any other robot in any other sci-fi from the 50s or 60s. You know the whole I… AM… A… ROBOT! voice.

However what the crew discovers on Venus seems quite different from any other movie from that time period. The technology and its purpose is creative and the rising seething black slime that comes to life late in the film is pretty nifty. I even appreciated the fact that not all the scientists make it out of the voyage. There’s no villain in this flick, instead our heroes face the dangers of space travel and the unknown. The ones that end up dying are usually in the wrong place at the wrong time, or victims of some random act. In a way it was refreshing not to have an evil alien or traitorous crewmember mess with the explorers.

Not to say the movie is perfect. First off this is an American dub of the original. It’s been edited down by twenty minutes, poorly dubbed and appears to have been pan and scan edited from a widescreen presentation. The pacing is a bit off, especially in the exposition heavy first third. A tepid romance is attempted between Sumiko and Brinkmann, and that slows down the proceedings. A few humorous moments with Omega also make the robot appear to be more like Twiiki from the 70s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century than HAL (Joel and bots pick right up on this). The result is a movie with some high aspirations mired by some dull pacing and a poor adaptation. What did Joel and Bots make of it?

Episode Review:  
The crew of Satellite of Love tackled the First Spaceship on Venus during their second season. For many viewers its one of the weakest episodes of the season. This seems odd especially since the movie provides such a rich bounty of visual oddity and bad dubbing. But for one reason or another, Joel and the bots just don’t seem up for this one.

Things start off oddly with the opening host segment where Joel is messing around with Tom’s sarcasm sequencer. Tom becomes really, really, annoyingly sarcastic, which Joel immediately regrets and tries to ratchet it back down. But as the movie plays, Tom starts getting more and more sarcastic again, eventually ending with his head exploding in the final host segment. This sounds like a funny idea in theory, but most of the “sarcastic riffs” are variants of “Ohhh a robot that talks like and idiot, where can I get one?” or “A planet with a toxic atmosphere? Sign me up for vacation right now.” All this is said in an extremely snooty sounding voice. A little of this goes a long, long way, and sadly it just increases during the film.

In addition there are a lot of what Mike ended up calling “state park jokes”. These aren’t really jokes, but observations, such as “Looks like they filmed this at a state park” when in fact they did. Here you get stuff like, “Looks like a model.” Or “I can see the strings”. Um yeah guys, we were thinking the same thing here. In the Amazing Colossal Episode Guide that was released shortly after the end of the Comedy Central run, Kevin Murphy comments that the writing crew needed a vacation after this show and that it was pretty obvious. I agree, especially when you compare the lackluster riffing here to the amazingly hilarious riffing for the next episode Godzilla vs. Megalon, one of the best episodes of the entire run (and done after the crew at Best Brains had taken that vacation).

That’s not to say that this episode is a complete loser. Most of the best material occurs once they land on Venus and get a lot of the really great visuals to work with. They have some fun with the space suits the astronauts wear during the voyage with Tom singing “This is the day the teddy bears fly to Venus”, because of the odd ear coverings. I also got a laugh every time one of the scientists records his log entry into what appears to be an electric toothbrush. The boys start a running commentary how he tells his toothbrush all his secrets and has fallen in love with it.

When they get to the surface of the planet with it’s dark crystalline surface, Joel quips, “We’ve secretly replaced their planet with Folger’s Crystals. Let’s see what happens.” During a panning shot of some frosted geometric structures Crow asks, “Doesn’t Superman live here?” Joel replies, “If he does, then he’s got a bad case of freezer burn.” Tom sums up his thoughts with “Guys, someone with a very different vision made this movie.” Crow replies, “It was based on a novel by Lewis Carroll”.

The host segments aren’t very good or memorable. Joel creates a junk drawer seeder, in which you put a few items in a junk drawer let it sit for a couple minutes and poof instant junk drawer. The mads root through their junk drawer and find Abe Vagota. The first break has the robots create their own super cool robot that only speaks in foam. Yeah I don’t get it either. The next segment has a completely non-sequitur bit about a gorilla in space. That is Kevin’s description and it fits. Then you get a commercial about KLACK foods, that is one long attempt at a gross out joke. As I mentioned the episode ends with Tom’s head exploding.

While I won’t say that your head may explode while watching this episode, your mileage will vary. I’ve seen some folks who really like this episode, but each time I watch it, I feel like they really missed out on some top notch riffing here. There are some good moments, but a lot of it is mixed with filler material that never connects. The movie is pretty watchable by itself, so that helps my rating of it. But it also makes me want to see the unedited version of the film Silent Star instead.

I give it two Omega (Ohm-iga or O-meega or Ah-miga) out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000:20th Anniversary Edition. 

2 comments:

  1. Poor Stanislaw Lem can't get a break with "The Astronauts" on which this movie was based. (The term cosmonaut hadn't been invented in 1951.) He later considered this early novel naive, and he hated the movie. I don't know if he ever saw the MST3K version. Let's hope not.

    I remember seeing this back in the 1960s. I noticed it was bad, but I had a pretty high tolerance for bad movies back then provided they were scifi. So, I saw it through to the confusing end: Wait...how again does the rocket get back into space?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I didn't think the movie was so bad, but compared to the film "Solaris" ... well it wasn't in the same league. This struck me as much more of a typical sci-fi adventure story.

    As for how the ship got back off Venus, well it had something to do with the alien technology causing the gravity to reverse and push the ship up off the planet. It didn't make much sense (and Joel and the bots were riffing away through most of the exposition in that scene). I just felt bad for the African scientist who got left behind on the Venus because the accident. Poor guy.

    ReplyDelete