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From the Vaults: 'First Spaceship on Venus' (1960)

June 7, 2010 |  4:00 am

Venusposter Well, "First Spaceship on Venus" is quite the odd little movie: a vintage space epic filmed in East Germany and co-produced with Poland. It features an international team of characters and a strong anti-nuclear message! Released in German as "Der schweigende Stern" ("The Silent Star," based on a book of the same name by "Solaris" author Stanislaw Lem), it came out in the U.S. two years later dubbed into English and heavily cut. But even in this very imperfect form, the film has an eerie beauty.

And actually, I watched it in an even more imperfect form -- I have to confess I watched the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" episode featuring this movie. Please don't all throw rocks at me! I'm going on vacation this week and I just ran out of time. If it helps, I really don't think "First Spaceship" deserves to be an MST3K movie. It just isn't bad enough.

The plot concerns a mysterious meteorite that proves to contain an alien message of some sort. Scientists can't decipher it but are able to determine that it came from Venus. Radio messages to the planet go unanswered, so this can-do Iron Curtain society sends a ship to find out what's happening on Venus. The whole world (represented by a varied crowd and a friendly, presumably state-run media) watches and cheers as their beautiful, candelabra-like vessel takes off: clearly, this future world is a harmonious place.

Things continue in this pre-"Star Trek" vein aboard the ship, as the international team copes with zero gravity  and dodges meteor showers. German Robert Brinkmann (Gunther Simon) reminisces about an old romance with fetching Japanese doctor Sumiko Ogimura (Yoko Tani).

The other characters aboard are Indian, Chinese, American, African, Polish and Soviet. There's also a robot that can play chess, and at Sumiko's insistence it has a "heart" installed so it can politely let humans win from time to time. (A dubbed robot voice is a very interesting thing to hear, by the way. I couldn't understand a word it said.)

VenusshipThe shipboard sets are completely awesome. The team wears magnificent goldenrod-hued uniforms with adorable little pockets over the ears. The ship has this great honeycomb ceiling, and the consoles are full of mysterious dials and blinking lights. I love the classic-model spaceships so very much -- the shapes, the faded hues. Really I just love the idea of a future civilization that never was. I'm not sure what year this is supposed to be, but a mention is made of irrigating the Gobi Desert in 1985. And our ship passes over several long-established lunar colonies (including, it's mentioned, the one where Sumiko's husband died -- there are a lot of hints like that at back stories that seem to have been otherwise dropped by the cuts).

Anyway, going back to the movie: Before landing on Venus, the ship's crew finally deciphers the message and learns that the Venusians had been planning a nuclear strike on Earth. They decide to land on the planet anyway, and once there find out why the Venusians never attacked: A nuclear disaster appears to have wiped out the entire planet's civilization. War is bad!

It's worth sitting through the whole thing just for the sequences on Venus. Brinkmann falls into a cave filled with tiny robot spiders who hop all over him, bobbing up and down rather like the Count's pet bats on "Sesame Street." A forest appears to be made of petrified charcoal, complete with crunchy soil underfoot. Characters are attacked by lava. And the signs of warfare are everywhere: burnt-out, spindly alien buildings; shadows of bodies seared, Hiroshima-style, into walls. I loved these scenes.

So if you're a vintage sci-fi geek or interested in Iron Curtain film, you might give it a shot. It's not great, but it's good enough to rise above the MST3K jokes for the most part. (Of course, this was only in season 2, which wasn't my favorite -- the show hadn't yet achieved the magnificence of season 4, which had such episodes as "Manos: The Hands of Fate." But we're not talking about MST3K. I won't do this again, I swear.)

And if you ask me, summer is the perfect time for vintage sci-fi. So I am packing up an old Robert Heinlein paperback and heading to the East Coast. Ta!

Next week: A silent film with an acid fight? I am so in.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images: This is such a beautiful poster -- how could anyone make fun of this movie?; the crew navigates using a now-classic viewer window.