I’ve recently discovered a craving for old science fiction movies and sated it with the East German/Polish joint venture The Silent Star that was roughly fashioned after Stanislaw Lem’s first novel The Astronauts. Mostly known in the West as First Spaceship on Venus in an abridged form, it’s an interesting look at a future that never was. I must admit that while the movie managed to still my craving for forgotten futures, it wasn’t exactly an engaging experience in terms of characters.
The best way I could describe seeing the movie is to imagine that someone had made an expensive, socialist/communist (or whatever quantifier you need for things behind the Iron Curtain) themed episode of Star Trek. The world is mostly at peace, socialism has won by being the better system while the US are still there in all their capitalist glory and still pigheaded about being the loser (not much is mentioned setting-wise, but this outlook was a given in this kind of science fiction). Then they discover an alien artifact from a space faring Venus civilization and an expedition to Venus is manned.
Now, why would I mention Star Trek? First, even behind the Iron Curtain they deployed the same kind of tokenism classic Star Trek was known for, in the end killing two of the token crew members to allow the movie to give a contrived farewell speech to show how inclusive the socialist future was. Second, while the future was merely interplanetary and not interstellar, the voyage to Venus and the exploration of the remnants of the Venusian culture felt very much like an old Star Trek episode. And third, there’s the moral lesson of the hour: don’t be warlike or you blow your world up, which is the big point the movie is trying to make and which comes of as horribly naive. Like so often with TV or movie lessons, it’s not that they are wrong, but instead hitting you over the head at the expense of showing you a compelling movie in its own right.
Now all this might sound overly critical, but it’s merely to highlight what The Silent Star is and what not. It’s the plot-by-concept-and-lesson driven movie making, where good characters are incidental (none are here, though a few, scarce scenes show potential) and most of the joy is derived from seeing alien landscapes and exploring the strange and mysterious objects. Even for such an old movie in terms of special effects, the effects that are there have a nostalgic charm and the ruins of the destroyed Venusian culture are hauntingly beautiful in their own way. They probably won’t wow a modern audience as thoroughly as they did when the movie came out, but they are still fascinating to look at.
I’m too jaded to give the lesson of the movie much thought, since I’ve long lost the believe that movies have that kind of influence anyway and blowing our world up isn’t high on my daily horror list. But I appreciate the honesty of the movie in trying to imagine a better future, even with its obvious faults. There are few entries in the science fiction genre these days (in any medium) that try that.
Sure, it’s incredibly naive and given the context probably at least partial due to the all-pervading propaganda mindset behind the Iron Curtain (socialist futures have to be good, the only bleak futures allowed are those where the capitalists have won), but the idea that the future might be a better place than the presents seems all too rare in science fiction. That all the people on Earth actually managed to create a more equal and peaceful world and not the daily cutthroat rat race grind we live in and see in science fiction everywhere, yeah, that looks like something I wish more writers would at least consider.