Aelita: Queen Of Mars

Aelita: Queen Of Mars

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Twenty-five years after HG Wells declared war on Mars, warning us that what might come from the red planet may not be a friend, dreams of interplanetary travel were very much a part of many people's daily lives and the old assumption still held, that where there was ground to stand on there were likely to be people like us. This may seem far fetched today but its import at the time was real. It was a significant motivating factor in the march of scientific progress, and nowhere more so than in the new empire of the east, the Soviet Union.

Set in 1921, when the revolutionary spirit in Russia was still at a high point and ordinary people believed they could work together to achieve great things, Aelita: Queen Of Mars is the tale of a man with a dream. His name is Los and by day he is an ordinary radio operator, recently married, getting on with the work of rebuilding his country in the aftermath of the First world War. In his dream, however, he is something rather more special, for the beautiful queen of Mars has fallen in love with him and longs for him to be by her side. As she lingers by her telescope, he strives to build a spaceship that will carry him to her.

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If all this sounds rather unhealthy, it's acknowledged as such, but not without sympathy. Nothing seems to be going right for Los. His best friends leaves the country. He has to give up his laboratory so that a new tenant can be housed in the building. His wife, Natasha, always seems to be flirting with the new tenant and miserable when he's around. Is this real, or is it all in his head? It's difficult for the viewer to tell, but gradually we see Los shift from harmless eccentric toward something that is possible dangerous. Meanwhile, on his imaginary Mars, things are not as idyllic as they might one have appeared. The rather abrupt line "The Council has voted. Put a third of the workers into cold storage" reveals a rather sinister and decidedly pre-revolutionary society. Aelita, despite being queen, doesn't actually govern the place. She seems minded to take up the cause of the workers; but can she be trusted?

Remarkably sophisticated for its time, in both narrative and visual technique, Aelita: Queen Of Mars is a clever blend of science fiction and pro-Communist filmmaking, though it's certainly not a straightforward propaganda piece. Rather, it has warnings to deliver about how easily revolutions can be corrupted, from either above or below. It depicts a Russian society that is far from perfect, with people taking advantage of each other and officials cheating the system, and it cautions that the only way to preserve a healthy society is through vigilance and hard work. This is an intellectual approach to politics that would be stifled in Russia not long afterwards and would, in years to come, emerge only obliquely through the work of great directors like Tarkovsky and Eisenstein, both of whom faced extensive censorship. Here it is naked and honest; the film itself is an example of the work it advocates.

For those more interested in catching a slice of early science fiction, there's still plenty to enjoy. The Art Deco Martian sets are glorious, albeit rather small, and there are some great action set pieces. The costumes are also spectacular, and scandalously scanty for the time. Los' spaceship will delight steampunk enthusiasts, looking like a great wooden barrel and powered by an arrangement of valves, levers and bellows. Through a tiny porthole, we can see the earth; it's startling to think that it would be another 36 years before any human would actually see it like that.

A pleasing dream about the reasons why we should sometimes set dreaming aside, Aelita: Queen Of Mars is one of the gems of silent cinema and deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2011
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Matinee serial-style space opera set in a crystalline Martian city - a silent film accompanied by new music.
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Director: Yakov Protazanov

Starring: Yulia Solntseva, Igor Ilyinsky

Year: 1924

Runtime: 112 minutes

Country: Russia

Festivals:

Glasgow 2011

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