on August 1, 2002
As evidenced by the extremely mixed reviews here, this East German/Polish co-production (filmed in 1959, released here in 1962) seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it affair. Personally, I'm in the lovers' camp, although if you've never seen First Spaceship on Venus you deserve some fair warning. According to IMDb, the East German version of this runs 130 minutes, the Polish (?) version 93. If either figure is reliable there's anywhere from 15 to 52 minutes missing from the 78-minute U.S. version, so there are definitely continuity problems. The English script is somewhat muddled and seems to repeat or contradict itself at times, several subplots have obviously been trimmed or junked entirely, and the English dubbing is particularly bad, with virtually no attempt to match dialogue with people's mouth movements. Also somewhat distracting is the heavy use of stock music cues (particularly the familiar Universal "Wolf Man" theme), although a few almost dissonant passages sound like they might be snippets of the original score. Between the heavy editing, rewriting, and dubbing it's really impossible to evaluate the original screenplay, but even with only the skeleton of SF legend Stanislaw Lem's original novel that's left, it's still more conceptually challenging than the average 1950s space opera (compare the roughly contemporary War of the Satellites, Missile to the Moon, or even a "classic" such as This Island Earth). In brief, a Venus mission is launched to determine the source of an ominous message encoded into a metallic spool unearthed by archaeologists. As noted by others, there are a number of ideas that presage later, more famous SF productions, including Star Trek (the racially and sexually diverse flight crew and Moon base personnel), 2001: A Space Odyssey (the robot chess game; the EVA repair mission; the buried artifact that's actually a communications device), and Star Wars (the `cute' R2D2-like robot), as well as a few bits more typical of cheap 50s sci-fi (the meteor shower, the shipboard romance). If you can bear with the roughness of the script and dialogue you will be rewarded with some very creative and generally superior (for the time) production design, optical and sound effects, and miniature/model work. The Earth laboratories, Moon base, and spaceship all look cool enough, and that artifact makes some crazy sounds, but when they get to Venus, things really kick into gear. There are strange sponge-like trees, lots of swirling smoke and fog, and wispy neon-colored gelatinous clouds flying around. The astronauts discover some high-tech Venusian "ruins," are attacked by black-and-red lava-like blob creatures, and ultimately discover the extinct Venusians' forbidding secret. The absence of big Hollywood bucks does show at times (the metal "bugs" are laughably cheesy, even for 1959), but First Spaceship on Venus makes up in imagination what it lacks in budget, much like Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires. If you dig the general atmosphere of that movie, this is probably up your alley as well. If you can't get past the problems with the script and dubbing, or are expecting slick modern special effects, this is probably not your cup of tea. If only someone could release the German version, competently dubbed or subtitled, FSOV would probably be ranked right up there with the Golden Age "classics"-Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M, etc. As it is, "serious" SF fans will probably be intrigued, if not completely satisfied, while the casual viewer may find it rough sledding.
Fortunately for fans of FSOV, Wade Williams and Image have unearthed a virtually pristine print for this DVD transfer. It's letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the color saturation, color balance, black level, sharpness, and shadow/highlight detail are generally excellent. (There is a little blocking-up in the shadows at times.) Physical damage is limited to some very light speckling/blemishing, that does get a bit heavier around a couple of reel changes, and the occasional damaged frame. After years of watching cropped, faded, dupey TV prints it's a revelation to actually see the whole frame, and especially in such terrific shape. Until someone lays their hands on the original European cut this is probably as good as this film will ever look. (Be sure to avoid the awful full-frame Diamond DVD edition that's paired with Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet; and I haven't seen the Platinum DVD but it's a safe bet it's just as bad if not worse than Diamond's.) The trailer for FSOV is matted to about 1.85:1 and doesn't look nearly as nice as the feature, suffering from mediocre color, scratching, and a soft, dupey look. Five trailers for other Wade Williams/Image releases are also included. A can't-miss buy for admirers of this underappreciated Eastern European gem.