The Corman Effect: A Give-and-take between Soviet and American Cold-war Science Fiction Film

By Oleksiy Radynski (Kyiv Mohyla Academy)

© Oleksiy Radynski, 2009

In 1962 the American producer Roger Corman purchased a Soviet science fiction film Sky Calls (Nebo klyche), produced at the Dovzhenko Studios in Kyiv in 1959. The movie was dubbed into English and screened under the title Battle beyond the Sun. Slight changes in the narrative were made to adapt the film for the American audience. Numerous propagandistic references were excised from the film, and some episodes were added. The person responsible for this adaptation was a UCLA film school student by the name Francis Ford Coppola. This was his debut in film.

neboThe transformation of Sky Calls into Battle beyond the Sun seems to be a juncture representing the reciprocal tendencies in the ideologies of two major superpowers on the peak of the Cold War. The transition of a Soviet sci-fi movie with strong propaganda overtones into the context of American mass culture (more precisely, into the B-movie industry headed by Roger Corman) allows us to compare the ideological phantasms behind the Space Race that defined the development of global mass culture. By analyzing the elements introduced by Corman and Coppola into the original film it is possible to shed light on the similarities and differences between unconscious desires fantasies shared by Soviet and American film viewers.

Science fiction as a genre whose conventions generally presuppose the location of action in an (un)certain future holds a privileged place within the Soviet imaginary. It has been noted that the temporal dimension of the works of Socialist Realism is in between the present and the future, which merge into an idealized picture of Soviet life. An ideal Communist society that was yet to come was projected onto the Soviet ordinary life. It is no surprise that Futurism was one of the crucial Modernist art movements that heavily influenced the emergence of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism was a kind of a “humanized” Futurism, that is, a Futurism devoid of anti-humanist pathos and constrained within the tradition of Russian psychological theatre. While Futurism aimed to create the reality of the future, Socialist Realism concentrated on its imaginary. The “happy tomorrow” that did not come in real life found its realization on a film screen. However, with the start of de-Stalinization and the fall of high Socialist Realism the function of constructing the imaginary had to be transferred to other cultural forms. The leading one was science fiction that was a continuation of a utopian project in new circumstances. The myth of space domination took the place of the myth of the construction of Communism on Earth, which seemed more and more unlikely.

neboAlthough Sky Calls was the first science fiction film produced at the Kyiv studios, the idea of making a big-budget space opus first came to the studios’ patron, the late Oleksandr Dovzhenko. In 1954 he wrote a script proposal called In the Depth of Space: Synopsis of a Feature Film on the Flight to Mars and Other Planets. No wonder that in this text Dovzhenko presented his visions of space within the context of a global ideological opposition. This is why Dovzhenko was unable to overcome the anthropomorphic and highly teleological vision of space. Inter alia, Dovzhenko proposed to compare the human observatory with an observatory on another planet, and also include a film within a film that would present the Earth to a Martian audience through the images of “war chronicles, youth festivals and atomic explosions in Japan.” Dovzhenko’s amusingly determinist version of space exploration is revealed in a statement that the life in space, according to a future film, has survived only on the planets whose inhabitants had finally reached communism, while all other civilizations (surely, capitalist) destroyed one another. Dovzhenko also makes a characteristic reference to his ideological counterparts: he states that this film can only be created by people of the communist society, and never by the Americans who, according to the author, continue the gangster genre on an interplanetary scale, disseminating “space pessimism” among the peoples of the Earth. This approach, Dovzhenko continues, is supported by the Church and therefore is an American “way to God.” Two years later, at the end of 1956, in a note Towards a Scenario on a Space Flight Dovzhenko shed light on his own version of the “way to God” through space: “One of the three passengers of an interplanetary ship does not believe in life on other planets... He, that unbeliever, has perished. The believers achieved their goal. Believers won. Must start writing” (Dovzhenko 1984: 498). Dovzhenko himself died soon thereafter, but his project survived and continued to transform according to ideological demands.

Directed by Mikhail Kariukov and Oleksandr Kozyr, Sky Calls was one of the first Soviet film industry’s responses to the start of Space Race. The film, set in the near future, follows a group of Soviet astronauts on their first scientific expedition to Mars. On an interplanetary space station they are contacted by an American space crew. Despite the Cold-war atmosphere that is represented explicitly, the Soviets inform their colleagues about their plans to reach Mars. The American crew, whose secret goal turns out to be the same, is obliged to outdo the Soviets by any means. They leave for Mars, but soon get into the gravitational field of a magnet asteroid and call for help. After saving the Americans from a collapsing ship, the Soviet astronauts are out of fuel and land on an asteroid. While waiting for a fuel rocket to continue their flight, the recent rivals develop cooperation and finally come back on Earth triumphant, despite the fact that their missions to Mars had failed. The final episode depicts an exulted crowd of Soviet people celebrating “the power of human friendship” that will allow the mankind to possess space.

neboHow could such a narrative, overloaded with Soviet propagandistic connotations, become a part of the American Cold-war spectatorship? Years later Roger Corman depicted this as follows: “Well, in the 1960s I bought the American rights to several Russian science fiction films. They were made with big budgets and tremendous special effects. They were, unfortunately, filled with anti-American propaganda. I said to the Russians, ‘I'm going to have to cut the anti-American propaganda out. I can't show these pictures in America,’ and they said that they totally understood” (Yates 2003). The most explicit example of “anti-American propaganda” in Sky Calls is an episode depicting the space fever in the American media during the astronauts’ flight. The announcers advertise “Mars cocktails” that “make you lose gravity” and promote buying plots of Martian land while the spaceship captain broadcasts reports on the successes of the American mission to Mars. Besides, the adaptation of the film for the American audience consisted of retouching the Soviet signs on the surface of the spacecraft.

Still, the most significant part of the adaptation process was not the removal but the addition of sequences that repositioned the film narrative within the context of “spaceploitation,” a part of exploitation film industry concerned with the issues of space colonization and the dangers it brings to mankind. This resonated with the Cold-War atmosphere of fear of nuclear destruction made possible by the science that, in popular opinion, had gone insane. In contrast to this approach, the Soviet Sky Calls depicted its protagonists as devoted scientists opposed to the sneaky American journalists pretending to be astronauts. Subversion of this logocentric paradigm starts in the very first seconds of Battle beyond the Sun.

neboThe opening sequence, filmed specially for the American audience, shows the models of spacecraft accompanied by the voiceover telling that modern science has reached an ability to “take the man beyond the confines of this Earth.” The narrator clearly refers to the genre of western as a predecessor of science fiction’s fantasy of colonization: “Maybe one day, not too far distant, audiences would be able to look on it [spacecraft] in the same spirit in which we watch the pictures about the first covered wagons crossing the plain.” The titles that follow contain fictitious names of actors and the film crew, mentioning Francis Ford Coppola as an “associate producer” and, in keeping with the colonial discourse, Mosfilm as a production studio. Then goes the footage of an atomic explosion, followed by the post-atomic war map of the world. The narrator explains that after the self-destructive war mankind remains divided into two opposing camps, the North and South Hemispheres. Symptomatically, the territories of the USA and the USSR are clearly marked as belonging to the same camp, the North Hemis. The flag of the South Hemis, displacing the Soviet world in the film’s narrative, is interestingly similar to the NATO flag. The date of the start of filmic events is clearly stated: November 7, 1997, the 80th anniversary of the October Revolution. Immediately after that title starts the Soviet Sky Calls, dubbed and retouched, but otherwise practically unchanged. Its protagonists are transformed into English-speaking representatives of the South Hemis, and their rivals (originally, Americans) metonymically represent the communist enemy. By localizing the film action in a post-apocalyptic future, the adaptors justify its explicitly Soviet texture. According to this vision, “our world” in future will look exactly like Soviet reality. The Cold-war antagonists had organically exchanged places.

This introduction contains many direct references to the ideological context that made possible the appropriation of a Soviet science-fiction artifact into Cold-war American culture. The most important one is a reference to a Western colonial project which, according to John Rieder, is a “significant historical context for science fiction” that “addresses itself to the ideological basis of colonial practice itself, by engaging various aspects of the ideology of progress” (Rieder 2008: 3, 30). From this perspective, science fiction may be regarded as the continuation of Western expansion after the victory of colonial project on the planetary scale. Colonization of space will succeed either after all Earth is put under the “reign of Reason,” or as a consequence of a devastating clash within mankind (as it is in Battle beyond the Sun). The introduction of apocalyptic overtones into a narrative originally devoid of any hints of the threat of atomic devastation is rather symptomatic, taking into account the specific history of the American sci-fi genre. One of its turning points was the explosion of atomic bombs over Japan. When the destructive power of nuclear energy, already depicted by sci-fi authors, turned into reality, the status of sci-fi literature changed from mere pulp fiction to a prophetic genre, a laboratory of possible scenarios of scientific development (see Berger 1976). Truth acquired the structure of fiction. Finally, it is hard to find a better example to confirm Fredric Jameson’s idea formulated in his essay “Progress Versus Utopia, or, Can We Imagine the Future?,” stating that futurological science fiction is a means of historicizing the present in the postmodern world marked by the decline of historicity (Jameson 1982). Doesn’t the image of an atomic explosion at the start of Battle beyond the Sun refer to the bombs dropped on Japan, and doesn’t the world divided into opposing camps correspond in a way to the actual Cold-War constellation?

neboHowever, the most crucial consequence of “the Corman effect” upon Sky Calls deals with the issue of extraterrestrial life, the object of Dovzhenko’s concern. During the space flight sequences in Battle beyond the Sun, images of a monstrous alien that are edited into the original narrative transform the sterile surface of a Soviet space into an uncanny depth inhabited by an unknown life form. The culmination of Battle beyond the Sun, edited into the original film, enables a closer look at the monster in the form of a giant vagina dentata that becomes central to the narrative. While on the asteroid, the astronauts are desperately waiting for the fuel rocket to arrive. In the original film, the flight coordination center finally sends a rocket whose pilot, after being exposed to large dose of radiation during the flight, dies immediately after exiting the rocket. In Battle beyond the Sun, this self-sacrificing turn is subverted by the appearance of an alien confronting the pilot. Since no interaction between the human and the alien was possible due to latter’s absence on the original film set, the pilot (as well as the film viewer) is limited to the role of the passive observer of an act of extraterrestrial violence. An alien in the form of a vagina dentata attacks another inhabitant of an asteroid, whose only anthropomorphic feature is an eye on a long stem.

neboCharacteristic of a B-class movie production, this battle of the aliens incorporated numerous mythological motifs that clarify the unconscious desires behind science fiction imagery. According to Freud, the motif of vagina dentata is widespread in the dreams of neurotics as well as in primitive art. Further exploration has led psychoanalysts to identify this motif with the look of mother’s genitals that is crucial for the development of the future neurotic. Another alien, the one with an eye on a non-anthropomorphic body, then can be described as a metaphor for a curious human mind in search of knowledge that may be deadly dangerous. An eye, this traditional metaphor of logocentric cognition, is literally castrated in a punishment for an attempt to look where one is not supposed to. The object of this forbidden gaze, according to the logic of Freud’s notion of the uncanny, is nothing else but castrating female genitals that haunt the neurotic protagonist even in the open space. Aiming to overcome the anthropomorphic conventions in the depiction of aliens, the authors of Battle beyond the Sun unconsciously take them to the logical conclusion. The most terrifying fantastic image they managed to come up with is simultaneously a representation of a basic neurotic fantasy. Battle beyond the Sun is far from being the only B-class movie production containing the image of a vagina dentata. The most famous example is perhaps Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, were this motif takes form of a flesh-eating flower created by the protagonist whose personal life is ruined by the excessive presence of his mother. As is well known, the obscene maternal Super-ego was represented by Alfred Hitchcock in the form of troublesome birds in his famous movie made in the same year with Battle beyond the Sun. Roger Corman’s vaginas dentatas represent the same psychic instance on a less sophisticated scale.

It has been stated that the best way to interpret the unconscious desire behind an uncanny cinematic image is to remove the terrifying motif and analyze what is left after that procedure. In our case there is even no need to strain the imagination: it is enough to watch the same episode in the original version. After the long hopeless waiting for the fuel rocket the faithless American astronaut leaves the ship and gets to the asteroid’s surface. Suddenly he sees on one of the rocks a giant figure in a Soviet space suit with a huge sparkler in his hand. The terrified American falls down—and wakes up; he goes to an illuminator and sees a human figure taking a few steps and falling down. This turns out to be a Soviet astronaut who piloted the fuel rocket and died due to radiation exposure. In the original movie, the place of the terrifying space beast belongs to the victorious image of a Soviet space explorer, representing the worst American nightmare in the imagination of Soviet filmmakers.

neboCorman and Coppola had yet another reason to introduce a terrible alien into the film’s narrative. Most likely, it was necessary to rationalize the totally illogical ending of the Soviet film. As noted above, after the failed mission to Mars the film’s protagonists come back to Earth as a united team of astronauts and are praised as heroes. In the original version, the Americans thank their saviors for “making them believe into the force of human friendship.” The pathos of this finale lies in the technical and moral victory over the rival, which was supposed to be much more important for the Soviet audience than the promised subjugation of Mars. Weird as it may seem, the final scene of Battle beyond the Sun is identical to the original, including the red flags and pioneers’ ties and other Soviet entourage present at the place of astronaut’s meeting. The mode of depiction of future Earth as a profoundly Soviet reality is supported till the very end. The voiceover comments on this picture of Socialist Realist ecstasy as follows: “Although the first attempt by men to reach Mars has met with failure, the greater insight into the real problems of mankind has been achieved. The way was now open for both sides to start working together in peace. Now, with their combined knowledge and effort, all men would come to know a better world in which to live, and one day, perhaps, the entire universe.” That is, the “real problems of mankind” are projected into the transcendent, inhuman space world, while in the Soviet version it is the dream turned reality that forced the antagonists to stop the confrontation.

Dovzhenko turned out to be wrong. America’s “way to God,” however different, was pretty similar in its direct consequences—at least in the case of “the Corman effect.”

Works Cited

Berger, Albert L. (1976), “The Triumph of Prophecy: Science Fiction and Nuclear Power in the Post-Hiroshima Period,” Science Fiction Studies, 9 (3.2), July.

Dovzhenko, Oleksandr (1984), “V hlybynakh kosmosu: Korotkyi zmist khudozhn'oho naukovo-fantastychnoho fil'mu pro polit na Mars ta inshi planety,” in Dovzhenko, Tvory v p'iaty tomakh, vol. 2 (Kyiv)

Jameson, Fredric (1982) “Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction Studies, 27: 147–58; reprinted in Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005), p. 281–95

Rieder, John (2008), Colonialism and the Emergence of  Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP).

Yates, Steven (2003),“Invasion of the Mutant B-movie Producers: Roger Corman Interviewed about His Work in Europe, Kinoeye 3.1 (2003)