Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Teens in the Universe (Russia, 1975)


I was hampered in my efforts to get you up to speed on the adventures of Moscow Casiopea’s crew of teenage cosmonauts by the fact that that film’s sequel, Teen in the Universe, came to me without the benefit of English subtitles. This was not as much of an impediment as you might think, however, because Teens, compared to it’s predecessor--which was a solemn chronicle of heroism and sacrifice in the face of the unknown--is markedly sillier and more dependent on timeworn space opera tropes—tropes that George Lucas would make even more timeworn just a couple of years later.

The film begins with the family of space-borne adolescent Sereda (Misha Yershov) celebrating his 40th birthday in absentia. This slightly awkward fete is intruded upon by I.O.O. (Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy), a character of vaguely defined magical abilities whom the first film taught us to view as a Willy Wonka-type figure with ambiguous morals and motives. I.O.O. proceeds to disgorge a veritable K2 of dialog that I presumed was meant to recap the first film while at the same time explaining the time-space paradox that required a sextet of middle schoolers to be blasted into space in the first place.


Meanwhile, back on the spaceship, we find that Sereda and his crew, though close to their destination planet Alpha Cassiopea, are in fact celebrating his 14th birthday. This is due to a mishap by stowaway Lobanov (Vladimir Boson) that caused the ship to travel at hyperspeed and get to Alpha Cassiopea much sooner than planned. This begs the question of why the powers-that-be, given they were already sending these kids on a probable suicide mission, didn’t have them travel at hyperspeed in the first place. It would be hard to argue that it was out of an abundance of adult concern.

Here I have to confess to having had a bit of trouble telling the young actors in Teens in the Universe apart. This is largely due to the two male leads looking virtually identical. Some intensive Google imaging eventually led me to understand that the one of these who was not Misha Yershov was Vladimir Savin, who plays Misha, the other square-jawed hunk at the command console. Vladimir Boson, who plays Lobanov, was easier to keep track of, given he is blond, gangly, and ruddy of complexion. The girls were an even easier matter: Varya, played by Olga Bityukova, is the icy blonde; Katya, played by Irina Savina, wears a pigtail and an expression of perpetual astonishment; and Yulia, played by Nadazhda Ovcharova, reminds me of the cartoon character Daria.


Making those identifications was crucial, because they now enable me to tell you that Sereda, Lobanov, and Varya head off in the ship’s shuttle toward Alpha, leaving Misha, Katya and Yulia in the plush, earthtone-leather-upholstered confines of the ship’s control room. They arrive on the planet to find it a sureal wasteland with odd, futuristic towers placed randomly along the horizon, and a peripheral herd of squeaking, bubble-like creatures that look like Rover from The Prisoner.

Finally they find a narrow white column from which a pair of odd, mime-like robots emerges. These wear tight, flare-legged jumpsuits and move with an exaggerated pimp walk , as if they were Tony Manero triumphantly stepping out onto the dance floor. After attuning their translating machines to the robots' language, which consists solely of whistling, the cosmonauts find themselves charmed by them enough to accompany them into their subterranean home. This, of course, turns out to be a really stupid thing to do.


Meanwhile, the remaining ship’s crew has encountered the noble, purple-haired original inhabitants of Alpha, who have been driven away by the robots and now live in a giant orbiting space station. Apparently, the robots have turned those inhabitants who stayed behind into robots whom they force into working in their robot factories--because that's how capitalism works in space. Sympathizing with their plight, Misha, Katya and Yulia take charge of another shuttle and take off for Alpha. Joining them is a bald headed dude whom I have to assume is some kind of soldier.

Once this team hits ground, all those old space opera cliches really come into play. First of all, Lobanov and Misha learn to disable the robots by addressing them with paradoxical statements (basically the Russian version of “everything I say is a lie.”) This, as you’ve probably already guessed, causes smoke to shoot out of the robots’ ears, after which they completely disintegrate, which is a nice touch. This leaves behind the robots’ helmets and sweet jumpsuits, which Misha and Lobanov don in order to infiltrate the factory, where they repeatedly escape discovery by the skin of their backs.



As for the other members of the crew, they don’t seem to be feeling too much pain, as they’ve been confined to a spacious and well appointed cell where the robots keep them soused on an endless supply of intoxicating libations. That is, until the robots reveal their plan to turn the girls into lady robots, kicking off a breathless race-against-time climax that somehow makes it seem as if the makers of Teens in the Universe were trying to make money.

That climax commences when Misha and company encounter a pair of errant domestic robots, one of whom seems to have been inspired by Rosy on The Jetsons (the implication here being that the robots rose up against their human masters; George's protestations of "stop this crazy thing" apparently went unheeded. ) These provide a way for them to enter the robots’ subterranean world, where the ass kicking begins in earnest. It is however, a very family friendly form of ass kicking, given our heroes’ opponents are machines, which means that smoke and sparks stand in for bloodshed.


Teens in the Universe is a fun, if hokey, movie—especially if you are a fan of that vision of the future peculiar to the 70s in which everything is made of white plastic and improbably spotless. This description excepts that fabulous leather upholstered control room, which is just one of the films’ many stirring design elements. The music, by Vladimir Chernyshyov, is also a delight, ranging from glacial strings in the style of John Barry to the kind of dopey Italianate scat singing (“dooba dooba do woww”) on which Pierro Umiliani would make his fortune. At a very reasonable 84 minutes, it is fast paced and easy going down, with all of those familiar plot gimmicks--which would be just as at home in an episode of Star Trek or Lost in Space—reeling out like a greatest hits collection

While by no means original or unique, Teens in the Universe resorts to outright pilfering in only one instance, which is almost absurd in its blink-or-you’ll-miss-it obscurity. During a final scene, as the repatriated Alphans emerge from a matte painting of a giant space ship in the background, a portal opens in the upper portion of the ship and the Voyager submarine from the movie Fantastic Voyage emerges and flies off to the left. This event, occurring as it does during a scene focusing on the foregrounded actors, is so pointless and unlikely to be seen that I can only view it as some kind of an in-joke among the film’s special effects crew-- especially since, given the rough compositing involved, it is probably the worst effect in the entire film.


Both Moscow Cassiopea and Teens in the Universe were popular films in their day—and apparently indicative of a consequent wave of kids-in-space movies, as a very similar sounding film, Bolshoe Kosmicheskoe Puteshevkie, aka The Great Space Journey, was released the same year. It’s easy to see why. There is enough evidence of good humor between the two films to indicate that, in the waining days of the space race, the Soviets—or their filmmakers, at least-- were not taking the whole project entirely as seriously as they once did. For a Russian populace beleaguered by the stagnation and scarcity of the Breshnev era, it’s hard to imagine such a relaxed stance not being a breath of fresh air.


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