PLANET OF STORMS (1962), aka PLANETA BURG, is often cited as one of the finest Russian SF ‘rocketship’ films ever made. That may sound like a dubious distinction, but consider: the Soviets were at the time of this movie’s release at the very least ‘ahead’ in the ‘space race’ by a Sputnik’s length or so, arguably more. The fact their cinema was freed from total commercial restrictions (since the state sponsored all production and distribution costs, attendance costs were so nominal as to be free) but restricted by the need to propagandize communist state ideals (there’s lots of talk about the superiority of the red way, comrade!) makes for an interesting tension not unlike their American brethren of the era’s ceaselessly pro-American jingoism.
Propaganda aside, PLANET OF STORMS works because of the unique Soviet approach to SF. Whereas American rocketship flicks always had the buck hero deal with any situation ray guns blasting until Kubrick and 2001, the Russian approach was vastly more in line with the speculations and fictions of the day. In other words, more intellectual (gasp!). The difference is at times sobering but never less than entertaining, particularly when you realize how effectively the filmmakers have evoked your actual landing on an alien planet (in this case Venus) for the duration.
This applied not only to their SF films conceptual ideas but also the production design. Again, the American counterparts were always ready and eager to forsake realism for sensationalism and (more typically) as a cost-saving option — after all, stock footage of rockets blasting off is always cheaper than a model and effects photography! The approach used by PLANET OF STORMS is much more refined and stylistically cohesive. Take for example the robot John, one of the truly most underrated cinematic robots ever created. To this day he should rank in the top ten of all-time greats in terms of believability and actual screen impact right alongside his American counterparts. The fact this movie is relatively obscure is the only reason John does not enjoy the true cult recognition he deserves. With his massive girth and uber Soviet design mechanics, John’s impact is as memorable as Robby’s in FORBIDDEN PLANET, an admitted influence. Watch as the mighty iron man falls trees, climbs dangerous mountain passages, and even braves a Venusian river of lava to save his human masters. He is the rare embodiment of Asimov’s benign Laws of Robotics in SF film.
The film’s bold sense of adventure helps it survive relatively watchable ‘as is’ despite the occasional lapses into propagandspeak. So much happens in the short running time, from meteors destroying spaceships, to giant dinosaurs on Venus, to man-eating tentacled plants, to an attack by a flying reptile, underwater scenes on the alien planet, and even a volcanic eruption to end it all, that it’s easy enough to drop the ‘fast forward’ remote and let the flick wash over you.
Though it’s influence was indirect on such current filmmakers as James Cameron and the Skotak Brothers (in that they saw the two versions Corman made of it with inserts of American actors like Basil Rathbone in the end of his career), it was the Soviet part of the efforts that captured their young imaginations. In other words, the production design and use of miniatures, as well as the overall effects photography. No joke, you can vividly see the influence in early Cameron pictures like GALAXY OF TERROR and THE TERMINATOR.
Many folks remember bits and pieces of these flicks despite the fact they’ve rarely if ever been aired in America since their Corman-ized release back in the late 60’s. That’s because they made the usual rounds as cheap syndicated fodder for late night local t.v. slots eager to use such sensational sounding A.I.P. titles like ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE, et al. But it’s a tribute to the Russian filmmakers who toiled in near obscurity that today these flicks are highly prized and sought after for their historic cinematic value. The value is not merely retrostalgic, but truly deserved, as these movies advanced SF cinema as surely as BLADE RUNNER and other more well-regarded efforts albeit in a less spectacular way. — Notes by Dave Coleman