A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS
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(Jul 13, 2006)
Published in 1920, David Lindsay's first novel was credited by C.S. Lewis as a major influence on his and JRR Tolkien's work. Science fiction had been represented by the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells until that time; Lindsay's strange tale of sexual identity and existential angst propelled fantasy literature toward its modern form.
In 1970 an independent 35mm feature film was made of A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS. Distributed by Brandon Films on 16mm (before videotape was popular) as part of their underground film series, the film is available for the first time in 33 years in this expanded DVD version.
Monochrome (black and white) with color enhancement.
EXTRA FEATURE: Behind the scenes photographs and interview with the filmmaker.
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This 1971 Antioch College production (supported by the National Endowment for the Arts) featured a denervated screenplay (converted to a Haight-Ashbury style), pre-school Claymation-like creatures (unnecessary), infantile lenswork, and crassly misinterpreted over-the-top direction. The actors did the best they could, but no one really had grip. If that seems harsh, buy it and decide. Seems like it needed to get done by final exam time.
I am fascinated by Lindsay's wonderful book, but this film dampens rather than enhances that delight.
And yet, here's a valiant attempt from 35 years ago, seemingly little more than a student film, which succeeds far more often than it fails. The budget is miniscule, the special effects are simple even for those times (such as the depiction of the shrowk) ... and yet, and yet ...
What matters in making such a film is capturing & conveying the vision of the story, not how much money is available. Indeed, a sufficent budget might well have been a detriment, as would the existence of CGI. The filmmaker can't fall back on either of those resources, so he concentrates on making the story & its philosophical underpinnings as vivid & gripping as possible. And for the most part, it works!
Some key scenes are truncated or eliminated because of time constraints; others are transformed outwardly, while still retaining their essence. But the look & feel is just right. The climactic vision of the book may be too complex to convey properly onscreen, but the filmmaker substitutes a simpler, more symbolic image which captures its essential truth.
I'm sure that when the film was made has much to do with its many strengths. Coming out of the 1960s, an era far more suited to & comfortable with visionary experience, the film takes the audience's receptivity to symbolism & the shattering of one paradigm after another for granted, and that works in its favor. A reading of the book before viewing is vital, I think. But the film is an honorable, bold, often compelling realization of the book.
This student work never even tries to emulate the fantasy elements of the original. Instead, it focuses on what truly matters: the personalities and personal transformations of the characters, especially the main character Maskull. A lot had to be skipped or simplified in bringing this complex book to the screen, but I feel that the film team made good choices in what to keep and how.
It really helps to know the book before coming to this movie. That will help the viewer through some of the obscure moments (i.e., most of them), and give the viewer a chance to fill in with imagination what lacks in the austere scenery and effects. Even the black-and-white filming works well, especially when different color casts help the viewer identify changes across the strange world of Tormance.
It seems a little odd to realize that this 1970 artifact, with definite hippie-era influences, lies almost as close to the story's 1920 origin as to the current day. That just adds to its charm, though. Others might have trouble enjoying it, but I recommend this little gem to anyone already a fan of Lindsay's baffling book.
The prose was fairly straight forward. The description of the surroundings was imaginative. The plot was plodding. The first murder was surprising, but after that I thought it was fairly predictable who was going to die. The book was an interesting, but not particularly enjoyable read. Perhaps, if I knew the philosophies he was addressing, I would have enjoyed it more.