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Aelita: The Queen of Mars
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by Jay Seaver

"Mars Needs Soviets!"
3 stars

It is a testament to director Yakov Protazanov's craft that someone viewing "Aelita" can watch and enjoy it for most of its running time without realizing that it's a pretty darn heavy-handed piece of propaganda. That's not necessarily a fatal blow; any time one watches an old movie or reads an old book, it is somewhat necessary to consider the context of the times, and communism's collapse was far from inevitable in the early 1920s (and to suggest otherwise in a Soviet-produced film would be an extremely bad career move). Sadly, though, the propaganda is followed up by the hoary cliché, which is annoying no matter what the ideology of the film (or filmmaker) (or sponsor) may be.

It starts off innocently enough. Los (Nikolai Tsereteli), a construction manager for a project near Moscow, tinkers with rocketry in his spare time. His devoted wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi) does clerical work where she is needed. They are fairly happy, though they live in a crowded apartment with one-time aristocrats unhappy with their current lot in life. This is watched from Mars by Aelita (Yuliya Solntseva), the young and relatively powerless queen of an empire whose prosperity is paid for by the blood and oppression of workers living underground. She adores watching the passionate, romantic Earthman, and plots to continue using the telescope even when she is denied access. Things are taking a turn for the worse for Los, too, as Natasha is seduced by the secret meetings of her once-wealthy neighbors. After an action committed out of rage, Los flees in his homemade rocket (with, of course, a pair of stowaways) to Mars, which is, of course, primed for revolution.

From the viewpoint of twenty-first century America, the rah-rah communist propoganda is kind of amusing, although for the better part of the movie, it's not insulting. Sure, the one-time nobility are the villains, but life in the Soviet Union isn't perfect - the apartments are rather crowded, Los is working long hours and has difficulty finding a place to work on his non-State-Sponsored project, and there's something less than ideal about a society that doesn't have a place for Natasha to look killer in a black dress. The communist ideal is a good one, and Los's belief in it marks him as noble in contrast to the aristocrats bemoaning the loss of privilege that they were born to. It's not until later, when Los is on Mars forging hammer-and-sickle emblems and making stirring speeches about how a civilization should be run, that one feels that maybe he's pushing the point a little hard, and, hey, you ran from this perfect society because it led you to commit a violent crime.

At any rate, it is not the propaganda quality of the picture which leads to its classic status, but its vision of Mars, which is justly famous. Every single detail is immensely impractical, of course, and the Martian living and working spaces look far more like sets for a stage play than anything that someone would actually use. They're beautiful, though, lush in their absurdity, somehow managing to be both open and busy at once. The end result is not nearly as complete a fictional world as Lang's Metropolis, though certain themes are shared in its construction - housing the poor in a dark, underground city has been a staple of speculative fiction for as long as the genre has existed. The costuming is similarly whimsical, in that I can use the word "whimsical" because I don't have to wear it.

The film works, for most of its running time. Both the fantastical and down-to-earth segments are well-shot, and if they seem naive now, they're believable products of their time. And the characters are well-drawn and relatable; even the staunchest libertarian capitalist can identify with the Loses' enthusiasm to help build a country where everyone would get a fair shake, or Aelita's excited eavesdropping on the exciting Earthmen. That's why it's such an unhappy blow when in the last act, they stop being universal characters with flaws and imperfections and become representations of class-warfare doctrine. And the very end is the sort of thing that always drives me bonkers, both erasing the consequences of a character's actions and deflating the fantasy elements.

There are some silent films that hold up no matter what the year, and others that are mainly good for getting an idea of the history of film. This screening of "Aelita" was part of a "Film Architectures" series at the Harvard Film Archive, which isn't always the dry, academic environment it sounds like, and it tries valiantly to be more than merely educational. In the final analysis, it doesn't quite manage that, but it does at least try.

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originally posted: 01/15/06 02:42:32
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  DVD: 20-Jul-1999



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