To the Stars By Hard Ways (Cherez ternii k zvyozdam, 1981) was based on Kirill Bulychev’s short story, A Difficult Child. In that story, a young humanoid (male, in this case) is found in space, part of a group of similar aliens who have been sent to Earth in hopes that they might survive the demise of their home planet and continue the propagation of their race, even if on a small scale. However, integration into human families and society proves more difficult than either group anticipated. To the Stars By Hard Ways takes the seed of Bulychev’s story and expands it substantially. In both the book and the movie based on it, it’s easy to read portions as autobiography. As a young man, Bulychev lived through the horror of Stalin’s purges and the hardship of World War II. His mother was a chemical engineer assigned to a munitions factory and later an experimental medicine laboratory, where she met and married her second husband, also a chemist. Bulychev’s mother cultivated the boy’s interest in science fiction as well as science, giving him comic books that eventually inspired him to go into writing and translation.
While working on a project in Burma, Bulychev came into a stash of science fiction novels left by British soldiers. Shortly thereafter, he began his own career as a science fiction writer, frequently risking censorship or worse for his refusal even under extreme pressure to tow the line — he never joined the state union of writers and he never joined the Communist party, remembering as he did that “They killed almost everyone I might ever have been related to.” Despite his iconoclastic nature, he still achieved a tremendous amount of fame and success, leading eventually to his collaboration with film director Richard Viktorov on To the Stars By Hard Ways.
When the Soviet Union began to dissolve in the late 1980s, Bulychev was initially elated at the removal of the oppressive yoke and expressed profound optimism for the future and the potential for a more united humanity to achieve great things. Sadly, it soon became apparent that such a vision wasn’t going to be the case, and Bulychev soon turned a critical voice to the state of post-Soviet Russia, decrying the disorganization, stagnation of science, rise of the Mafia, and the return of religious and mystical superstitions. “I cannot for the life of me stand conversations about flying saucers, ESP,” he once said, “mages, wizards, and seers, new chronologies, and the goodness and humanity of comrade Lenin. Or the predictions of Nostradamus.” His combination of humanism, rationalism, and skepticism rings through in To the Stars By Hard Ways, a movie that balances hope and despair, the potential and limits of technology, and the success and failure of the Soviet model.
The movie begins with a group of cosmonauts on a routine mission. They happen across a derelict spaceship filled with what appear to be a group of genetically engineered humanoids — all dead except for one. The one is a young, androgynous woman, Niya (Yelena Metyolkina), regarded by those who discover her alternately as a tragic case and as a potential threat to international security. No one is exactly sure what she is — including Niya herself, as she suffers from memory gaps — but when she exhibits powers such as super speed and teleportation, it’s clear that she was created for some purpose of a potentially military nature. Sympathetic scientist Sergei Lebedev (Uldis Lieldidz) wins out over the more suspicious Professor Nadezhda Ivanova (Nadezhda Semyontsova) and is allowed to bring Niya to his idyllic country home in the hopes that being around a loving, scientific family will help her acclimate to her surroundings while also helping them understand her. Bulychev’s own parents serve as the model for the perfect Soviet family in the story — a mother who is a doctor, a marine biologist father with a majestic beard and confident stride even when he’s wearing sandals. Granted, the story also strips out background details, like how Bulychev’s mother went to the munitions factory after all her professors were executed, or how his father was a lawyer forced to perform a dance of false due process during the purges.
Things don’t progress smoothly, but they do progress. Niya quickly picks up human speech, though human behavior and emotion often puzzles her — such as when she encounters the would-be girlfriend of the family’s dashing young space cadet son, Stepan (Vadim Ledogorov), and cannot grasp the woman’s sarcasm or jealousy. Niya is also deathly afraid of water, and a brief rain shower causes flashbacks that enable her to begin piecing together the increasingly distressing fragments of her past. An invasive mental experiments conducted by Professor Nadezhda reveals that Niya has a trigger buried deep within her brain that renders her compliant to the will of an external controller. Nadezhda fears what this could be used for, given Niya’s superhuman abilities, and who it might be used by. Niya herself is depressed to learn that someone else could simply issue a command and override her free will.
When Niya sees a news report about diplomats from a doomed planet named Dessa, her memory finally falls into place. It turns out she was designed by a Dessan dissident faction as part of some scheme to save the planet from its impending ecological decimation. When the humans agree to accompany the Dessans and donate equipment that will scrub their atmosphere and save the planet, Niya sneaks on board, not realizing that Nadezhda is part of the expedition, as is young Stepan. And then the movie grinds to a halt for a little bit, with the journey to Dessa dominated by an out-of-place comedic subplot involving an obnoxious octopus-like alien who hates cats and harasses Stepan to no end.
The film gets back on track once the cosmonauts and Niya arrive on Dessa. Technologically, the job of repairing the atmosphere proves fairly easy for the Earth people, but the power of their technology is less adept at overcoming the machinations of Dessa’s political landscape. The dying planet is lorded over by a vicious businessman, Turanchoks (Vladimir Fyodorov), who has a monopoly on manufacturing breathable air. He’d rather see the planet destroyed than give up his lucrative cash cow. Oh, and he also happens to be a cackling, overcompensating dwarf who wields the market like a bludgeon to enrich himself to the detriment of the planet and all the people on it — even going so far as to tolerate his own pollution-caused stature if it means bringing in a few more dollars. And for some reason, he also suffers from a near crippling ticklishness.
Science fiction, when it’s at its best, deals with large questions about society and the future, and in doing so can often come to conflicting conclusions (if indeed there are any conclusions to be made). This can be doubly true of Soviet science fiction, which had to walk a razor’s edge between paying lip service to the Communist party, embracing the portions of Communism the creators thought were genuinely worthwhile, and criticizing the things the creators felt were propelling humanity down the incorrect path. To the Stars subverts “communism versus capitalism” propaganda by pinning real-life blame for environmental destruction on the Soviet Union. The film ends by announcing that the scenes of environmental devastation and blight are not sets; they are actual shots from locations within the Soviet Union. The title card announcing this was, not surprisingly, chopped from many prints of the film.
It’s not like greedy businessmen with a stranglehold on the air market is a purely Communist idea. Total Recall‘s plot revolved around pretty much the same thing. In fact, the murderous scumbag businessman was a standard go-to villain in 1980s science fiction and action films. And the environmentalism of To the Stars is less about Soviet propaganda and more akin to the environmental apocalypse films of the 1970s. The onset of the oil crisis and the discovery of a massive hole in the ozone layer, not to mention increasingly intense smog problems in the major cities of the world (among other issues) served as a (sadly temporary) wake-up call for people about how we were using the planet. And so science fiction entered an era when environmental destruction, more than war (but usually some combination of the two), was the culprit behind the collapse of society.
Despite the flashing lights and attempts at post Star Wars special effects, To the Stars By Hard Ways fits in much more comfortably with the more contemplative science fiction of the 1970s than it does the 1980s, and in particular the overall mood reminds me of nothing so much as it does the melancholy of the Japanese anime series Galaxy Express 999. Both feature sweeping space opera and a sense of mystery about them, but beneath that both are very human, very sad stories about loss — of youth, innocence, identity and place. The viewer’s engagement in the two main characters in Galaxy Express makes you forget the overall absurdity of a show about a steam locomotive flying through space, in much the same way that I think the empathy one feels for Niya in To the Stars By Hard Ways overshadows any dodginess on the part of the special effects or the curious facial hair affectations of the people of planet Dessa, who have decided that growing half a Klingon mustache out of the corner of their lower lip is the way to go.
To the Stars By Hard Ways may have been something of a special effects blow-out for the time by Soviet standards (in much the same way Starcrash was for Italy, and with similar budgetary and technical woes), but the special effects are not the focus of the film. Instead, it relies on its characters and story to be the core of the film. It is when she finds herself caught in the middle of this struggle for the future of the planet that the final pieces of Niya’s purpose fall into place. The overwhelming sense of doom, that no matter what happens, she will suffer, provides the film with an emotional core often lacking in the genre. I am no opponent to big, effects-laden scifi films that are actually just action films with some future stuff taped to the guns. But more than that, I’m a huge fan of science fiction that makes an effort to be about something — even (especially) when the message is delivered in a somewhat ham-handed fashion(which is the case more times than not). As long as the message has an air of authenticity, of honesty — of earnestness — about it, then it’s probably going to click with me. And To the Stars By Hard Ways suffers no shortage of ham-handed earnestness to lend it a haunting beauty and sense of melancholy beneath all the wild costumes and candy colored blinking lights.
Soviet science fiction generally made an effort to accentuate the positive, to show that through equality and the application of fantastically idealized notions of Communist can-do. But there was often also something else buried beneath the propaganda. Perhaps it’s just a trick of my own perception, but every now and then there’s the feeling that the universe is big enough that humans are going to run into a lot of things they are powerless to affect, no matter how stolid a supporter of jaunty Communist principles they may be. Hard to Be a God came out amid the full-on collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and it features characters who despite advanced technology and morality (or what is perceived as advanced morality), cannot save a population from itself. Although we can assume that ultimately the cosmonauts in To the Stars will succeed in saving Dessa, it is not without substantial sacrifice, and in the end regardless of success or failure Niya is unmoored and without a home.
In both films, science and reason go head-to-head with oppressive regimes — religion and superstition in Hard to Be a God, greed and paranoia in To the Stars By Hard Ways. And both films seem to champion the cause of free thought and science while also admonishing those who think the road will be easy simply because they are in the right. The characters in Hard to Be a God spend years studying and covertly integrating into an alien society, but they never succeed at figuring out how to successfully nudge it out of barbarism, resulting in chaos and collapse when plans come to a head. The scientists of To the Stars are confident that they have the technology to save Dessa, but they are unprepared to deal with the political machinations and unable to grasp the notion that some would actually prolong the suffering of the planet in order to enrich themselves.
The success of To the Stars rests on the slim shoulders of its star, and Yelena Metyolkina does a fantastic job at pulling the viewer into a character that is terrified, powerful, confused, dangerous, vulnerable, and above all lost and lonely. Metyolkina’s large eyes and expressive face are used to great effect, and she moves her lanky frame in a way that makes it apparent she is like a human without being a human. She’s weird and quirky at times but always sympathetic — especially for anyone who ever felt they were weird or an outcast. She is alien in her presence but also touchingly human in her quest to simply figure out where she belongs. As she discovers bits and pieces about herself and her purpose, it’s hard not to feel the heartbreak along with her as every revelation pushes her further and further away from belonging anywhere.
To the Stars also relies on make-up effects to assist Yelena Metyolkina in communicating the effect of the plot on its central character. When first we meet her, she is pale white and vacant, but the more time she spends with the Lebedevs, the more flush and colored and human looking she becomes. As she inches closer and closer to her final revelation about her past and her future, she becomes waxen and cadaverous in appearance, with skin going yellowish and huge dark circles forming under her eyes. The film never comments on her having any sort of empathic relationship to what happens around her, but neither is the make-up so low-key that it isn’t obvious. It’s not high tech, it’s not flashy, but it is effective and just one more way a film like this shows that you can rise above budgetary or technical limitations and, in fact, often benefit from such limitations.
Vadim Ledogorov is a good looking young man, but he plays Stepan a little too… not exactly whiny but, well, kind of childish, especially when he’s surrounded by so many upstanding and proper adults. There’s a comparison to be made between Stepan, who acts like a child, and Niya, who has the naivety of a child but is very different from the much flightier Stepan. Maybe the filmmakers recognized Stepan was a weak character, which is why they saddled him with that dumb octopus alien subplot. The film’s other, more interesting supporting character is Nadezhda Semyontsova’s Professor Ivanova. Initially, it looks as though the film may be setting her up to be the foil for the more sympathetic Sergei, especially when she seems so determined to probing Niya’s brain and is accused by Sergei’s mother of being unfeeling because she has no children of her own and has no husband. The “woman who is angry because she can’t have babies” trope is a tired and insulting archetype, and it would be out of place in a film that otherwise strove to be much more forward thinking. Luckily, that criticism of her is soundly dismissed as old-fashioned. A woman does not need to draw her sense of self-worth from her ability to marry and breed. Ivanova seems a villainous character in some ways, but ultimately her objective commitment to experimentation is accompanied with an increasing compassion. All science, no art or all art, no science — neither one works out well in the end, as Lazlo Hollyfeld taught us.
It’s nice to see a movie where the central and most complex characters are two women, one young and mysterious, the other older and brilliant. It seems initially that the story will revolve around Sergei, but he quickly becomes a background character. It then looks like it could veer into the realm of bad romantic territory, but young Stepan is also quickly relegated to the background, though there is still a stilted stab at romance between he and Niya. That little aside, however, seems properly in line with Niya’s evolution and desperation to find somewhere she belongs, and the romantic subplot occupies little of the overall run time.
Ivanova’s journey to revelation begins when she discovers the trigger in Niya’s mind that renders her a slave to the commands of a third party. Initially fascinated by the trigger, she begins to revile it the more she realizes what it can be used for and, more importantly, what it does to Niya when she discovers her will can be flipped on and off by anyone who knows the proper code. On the trip to Dessa, Ivanova comes full circle, from Niya’s primary antagonist to her closest friend (though always at a distance, as neither woman is 100% comfortable with such displays). Stepan remains too goofy. Niya’s own people are too suspicious. But Niya and Ivanova are eventually able to understand one another. At no point does it really become a mother-daughter relationship or undercut Ivanova’s assertion that women are more than their ability to have babies and raise children. Like the space journey itself, the friendship is hard one by traveling down a thorny path.