aka Aelita, or The Decline of Mars
Written by Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi
The Russian Revolution, at least the one that ended with the creation of the Soviet state, began in 1917. There was a lot that went into sparking it, and it’s beyond the purview of this book review to go into the details of it, but it is true that the conditions of industrial workers contributed to the dissatisfaction behind it. (As did the Russian defeats in WWI, which was still ongoing.) The center of the tsarist and then provisional government was Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), which is where Aleksei N. Tolstoi’s Aelita begins.
The year is 192_. We don’t know the last digit, but we know that the book was published in 1922 or 1923 (I’m finding conflicting dates on that…), and that the revolution “ended” in 1922. At most, the story starts only 7 years after the creation of the USSR. This proximity in setting (and writing) to the time and place of the revolution informs the narrative in several ways, from the characters to the events on Mars. (Additionally, although Tolstoi had no way to know this before publication, Petrograd would be renamed to Leningrad in 1924. Let’s just ignore that.)
Our human adventurers are Mstislav Sergeyevich Los and Alexei Ivanovich Gusev. Los is the designer of the spaceship the pair use. A recent widower, he takes no joy in anything. He now views the trip as a patriotic and hopefully suicidal gesture. Gusev is a soldier with no more war to fight. He is married, but he too finds little meaning in existence. For him the trip is an opportunity for adventure. Or death. Maybe both.
The Petrograd they are leaving is a city in ruins. Gusev and his wife live in one room of a decaying mansion, abandoned when the rich fled the city. This is where the revolt started, and a succession of upheavals in government have left it with broken infrastructure and shattered people. The crowd that gathers to watch Los and Gusev’s departure doesn’t expect to witness success, but it is a way to distract themselves from their daily struggles.
The trip to Mars starts on page 20 of the translation I read. It’s a fast read, with short chapters and only about 160 pages. Things happen quickly, even when not a lot is going on. There are a few sections on the history of Mars, but they pass quickly, skimming over thousands of years on two worlds. It’s a feel that I love, getting a sense of the expansiveness of the environment without slowing the pace.
The ruling class are descended from a Martian tribe that interbred with the Atlantean conquerors, who in turn— Look, it’s frankly silly and not a little racist here. Let’s just say that there’s a legend about the return of the Sons of the Sky. This causes two divergent reactions to the arrival of the cosmonauts. The worker class hails them as a sign of change, and the leader of the Supreme Council, Tuskub, fears they’re conquerors.
The situation on Mars is desperate. The planet is declining, and resources are dwindling. Tuskub believes that there is no salvation, and his plan is to destroy the masses so that he and the other rulers can live out the remaining days of the planet in luxury. In his mind, his legacy will be a glorious sunset for Martian civilization. It’s a pretty clear analogy for the recent events in and around Petrograd.
Who or what is the Aelita of the title? She’s the aristocratic daughter of Tuskub, a priestess who teaches the humans the Martian language and the history of the planet. She’s critical for exposition, but it honestly makes zero sense why Tuskub would expose her to the strangers from space. She gets a terrible plot arc, obliged to fall in love with the old widower. In the end, she’s just another woman for Los to lose.
By now, you’re wondering why I’m writing about this book. There are only a few animals on Mars that we’re introduced to. There are flying things and grazing things. And then there are the giant spiders.
Yes. I’m here for the spiders from Mars.
The first night that Los and Gusev are on Mars, they encounter the giant spiders along a dry riverbed. They discover dead spiders in abandoned buildings, and always in the dark places there are eyes.
Suddenly Los stopped. A chill of digust went down his spine. Three feet away, on the ground, large equine eyes, half-shut with reddish lids, stared at him through the thick leaves. They stared intently with vicious hostility.
“What’s the matter?” Gusev asked, and then saw the eyes. Without a thought, he shot at them. Dust flew up. The eyes disappeared. “What a disgusting thing!” Gusev turned and shot again at the brown-striped fat body running swiftly on long spider legs. It was a huge spider, the kind that are found only on the bottoms of deep seas on Earth. It disappeared in the underbrush.
Near the end of the book, as the Martian revolt is in shambles, Los and Gusev stumble through ancient underground passages in search of Aelita. They discover a crevasse from which an unsettling noise emerges. It’s the sound of breathing from countless spiders. Los realizes that after the last Martians die, the planet will belong to these creatures. There’s no future for the people of the planet.
Tuskub crushes the revolt and the city, and he recovers his errant daughter, leaving Los all but dead. Gusev takes Los back home. Their adventure has changed them. The failure of the Martian revolution seems to have cured Gusev’s restlessness, and he rejoins his wife. Los is driven by his desire to rejoin Aelita, and he works for others to produce another spacecraft.
It’s a curious story, clearly sympathetic to revolution and critical of those who let others starve while they live lavishly, but skeptical of the ability of a society to reform. The philosophy presented in the histories of Mars is that progress leads inevitably to violent collapse. The more knowledge that is accumulated, the faster we race to the brink. Certainly Tolstoi experienced enough turmoil, bloodshed, and iniquity in the decade prior to writing Aelita to warrant pessimism. Tolstoi left Russia for a time after the White Army lost to the Red, but he returned as a fierce nationalist.
It’s really no wonder that the Soviet movie made of the book in 1924 bears little resemblance to the text. Aelita may have been accepted because of Tolstoi’s very public return to the Soviet Union, but its themes were too complicated with pessimism and anti-war doubts to be a good fit for a film industry converting to Soviet themes. (In much the same way that big-budget Hollywood pictures avoid complicated motives and nuance.) But the movie is a story for another time. I may cover it despite the lack of spiders, just to provide a comparison with the book.
This review used the translation by Antonina W. Bouis published by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. © 1981
Directed by Jeff Leroy
Written by Eric Spudic
Starring Lisa Jay, Jeff Ryan, Phoebe Dollar, Calley Edmunds, and Ron Jeremy
Some movies aren’t good. Some movies are so bad they’re enjoyable. Some movies try to be so bad they’re enjoyable and wind up on SyFy. Some movies take that as a challenge and appear to be created as some form of social experiment to find out if people will actually watch anything. I owe apologies to some of the movies I’ve panned, because Creepies proved that it’s possible to be more artless and less ambitious than The Asylum.
Directed by Bill Rebane
Written by Richard L. Huff and Robert Easton
Starring Steve Brodie, Barbara Hale, Robert Easton, Leslie Parrish, Alan Hale Jr., Bill Williams, and Diane Lee Hart
A lot of horror movies have misleading titles. The Monster That Challenged the World, for example, merely bothered a small boat. One thing I can say in defense of The Giant Spider Invasion is that its title is not technically a lie. There are spiders that are ecologically invasive, and one of them is indeed effing huge. That’s about the only thing impressive about it. The spider, I mean. More on that later.
Directed by Tony Randel
Written by Brent V. Friedman
Starring Rosalind Allen, Ami Dolenz, Seth Green, Virginya Keehne, Alfonso Ribeiro, Peter Scolari, Ray Oriel, Dina Dayrit, Barry Lynch and Clint Howard
There have been several films about minuscule terrors; Phase IV and The Flesh Eaters come immediately to mind. Likewise The Beginning of the End and The Empire of the Ants present the peril of small things vastly enlarged. There is a minor niche in between for films about the tiny grown to not-very-big, and within that the chief example is Ticks.
Directed by Tibor Takács
Written by Joseph Farrugia, Tibor Takács, and Dustin Warburton
We start in space, with the title appearing against a starry background.
I don’t have a 3D set, but if the title hadn’t mentioned it I wouldn’t have known I was missing something. So, good going titles.
The camera pans until the Earth comes into view. Then we see our planet covered by a spider. As our view pulls back we see that it’s actually on a view port of an orbiting space station. From the dead astronaut and many loose spiders, we may assume that something went wrong. Further, the Cyrillic letters on a clipboard indicate it was a Russian vessel.
If you were thinking that a meteorite would strike the space station, I congratulate you! You’ve seen a movie before.
Meanwhile, in New York City, our hero arrives at a rail transit control hub. Patrick Muldoon (“Starship Troopers”, “Days of Our Lives”) plays Jason, who seems to be some kind of district chief. One of the workers hands him an iPod. This is a gift purchased on Jason’s behalf for some young girl. Like a lot in this film, the details are murky.
When there’s a problem at the Noble Street subway station, transit worker Jimmy goes into the tunnel to investigate. He finds that something has penetrated the tunnel, but his experience fighting in Iraq tells him it wasn’t a bomb. Homeland Security is called anyway. Given that Jimmy fails to notice the large blue spider that crawls out his pants seconds after he’s bitten, it’s probably wise not to trust his observations.
Jason breaks contact with Jimmy to watch a news report on the incident. It identifies the cause as debris from a Soviet satellite launched in the 1980s. Jason decides to see the damage for himself, so he heads out. He tries to reach Jimmy again but gets no response. This is hardly surprising, as Jimmy has passed out from the toxins in his system and landed on the infamous third rail.
Jason pulls up to a subway entrance in a New York Transit van. A body is being loaded into an ambulance, and our hero asks callously if it was a jumper. A woman some kind of uniform who seems to know Jason informs him that it’s Jimmy. She is Rachel, played by Christa Campbell (“Mansquito”, “Day of the Dead”), and we’ll find out more about her later.
Down in the tunnel people in hazmat suits inspect the area with various equipment. They declare it’s free of radiation, and a bunch of officials enter — Jason and Rachel included. A Dr. Darnoff identifies a piece of wreckage as a disposal unit from the satellite. Homeland Security is satisfied, Rachel says the Health Department is not. ‘Waste’ sounds like something potentially hazardous. While everyone bickers over who’s paying for what and when the subway can re-open, nobody notices rats fleeing the area.
Later that night Rachel arrives at a Chinese restaurant where her daughter Emily has been waiting with (presumably) a babysitter, who promptly leaves after being paid. Rachel tells Emily that her father means well, and from their mention of his subway and the presence of gifts we can start to infer that Jason and Rachel might be more than friends.
Jason stops at a hospital, where a Dr. Stella takes him to the morgue. There she confirms that Jimmy died of electrocution. What’s interesting is what hadn’t killed him; she found the spider bite and worse — marble-sized eggs in his abdomen! Jason asks to take them to City Health, which probably violates all manner of procedures, but Stella readily hands them over.
Jason’s next stop is Rachel’s apartment. He gives Emily the iPod, and she happily flees the scene. Jason hands the eggs to Rachel, and she gives him divorce papers. At least we finally understand their relationship.
From here the plot spins into the well-worn patterns of government conspiracy, re-uniting family, and experiments gone wildly out of control. The area around the Noble Street station becomes overrun with spiders the size of people, and it’s up to Jason to stop the enormous queen.
It’s not what you’d call a good movie, but it’s largely entertaining and has some really nice touches. Some of the minor characters actually have significant plot beats, and even the soldiers that enforce the quarantine are shown to be people with their own motivations. The thinnest characterization is Colonel Jenkins, played by veteran actor William Hope (“Aliens”). He’s the villain of the piece, responsible for many of the named-character deaths and difficulties, but the script doesn’t give him any motivation or personality other than the face of pitiless government.
The true joy of this film is the spiders themselves. They’re goofy looking and abundant, growing to the size of a horse in roughly a single day. Then there’s the queen… But first let’s talk origin.
We’re told by Dr. Darnoff that the soviet scientists had tried to splice alien genes into several different animals but that only the attempt with spiders had succeeded. Why would they do this? To produce military-grade silk for making armor. The colonel, of course, wants to drop spider eggs on enemies.
All of which begs several grade-school level questions.
1. Why would you cross anything potentially dangerous with a spider? You know what you cross spiders with? Tomatoes! Tomatoes never killed anybody.1
2. When did the silk plan enter the picture? Did the dead aliens have a gold-plated record that told of the wondrously strong silk their genes produced? It seems more like something the scientists made up when they were caught making alien-hybrid spiders.
3. Why did they stay relatively small in the space station? Granted it’s not like there was a lot of food, but it’s not as though they spent enough time eating to grow as big as they did so quickly on Earth.
4. What did they eat on the space station? A cosmonaut, obviously. But then what? The station was essentially abandoned for decades.
5. After the giant spiders wipe out your enemy, how do you get rid of them? The Orkin army?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that all mysteries are explained by “alien
DNA” and that the queen is the size of a nice house in the suburbs.
While it’s not CGI on the level of “Jurassic Park” or Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”, the effects in this are a darn sight better than the typical fare in modern spider movies. For the most part the spiders interact reasonably well with the environment, and the design is fun. They have big humanoid eyes and multiple sets of jaws. Best of all, the queen shows accumulated damage from all of the bullets and general artillery that have hit it. When so many details are omitted, glossed over, or otherwise left to the viewers’ imagination, this demonstrates that genuine care went into the production.
Overall I found “Spiders” entertaining and a touch above the average monster flick. Despite a run-of-the-mill plot and some standard failings, it’s a movie that I can go back to again and again.
And maybe one day I’ll manage to see it in 3D!
Patrick Muldoon is no stranger to fighting giant spiders. Even if you don’t count “Starship Troopers”, he starred in the direct to TV “Ice Spiders”.
I actually appreciate that the script leaves Jason and Rachel’s relationship undefined for so long. It seems more natural that they don’t talk about it all the time.
Of all the people in the film, I feel sorriest for the babysitter. It sucks for all the victims, but here’s a girl who was just picking up some spare cash, and she gets put in quarantine and killed almost as an afterthought.
1. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” doesn’t count.
Written by J. Brad Wilke and Jim Wynorski
Directed by Jim Wynorski
Early into the US occupation of Afghanistan, a photo of soldiers was widely circulated in which a pair of camel spiders hung grotesquely in the foreground. For a week or two everyone shuddered at the thought of those humongous Middle-Eastern spiders, and then we collectively forgot about the whole thing. Inevitably, Roger Corman produced the movie “Camel Spiders”. The only real surprise was that it took almost a decade for him to get around to it.
The film opens during a firefight in Afghanistan. American troops are pinned down by rebels (extras in street clothes, some of whom are literally wearing towels), who are likely meant to be Taliban forces. In a way, it doesn’t matter. Partly this is because they’re all about to die horribly, but mostly it’s because they are irrelevant to the plot.
What is relevant to — and indeed is — the plot, is how these Afghanis die. Pale spiders, about the size of cats, crawl over the combatants and fang them to death. They then drag away two of the bodies before the American troops eventually notice the lack of returned fire and investigate.
The medic determines that it was death by beshbesh — camel spider. These are deadly desert spiders that can outrun men and inject a powerful venom with their bite1. Captain Sturges (Brian Krouse, of “Sleepwalkers” and the TV series “Charmed”) is more concerned about his own side’s single casualty.
Corporal Plot-Device has been killed in the bullet exchange, and the lightly wounded captain assumes responsibility for taking his body home. Despite ample photographic evidence of the stately manner in which the bodies of our soldiers are transported, the corporal is crated up with a few rodent-sized camel spiders and shipped to a military base in Arizona, where it’s put on a truck transporting munitions.
The driver of the truck is Sergeant Underwood (Melissa Brasselle2), and the clumsy sexual tension between her and Captain Sturges will be an uncomfortable feature of the rest of the film. Fortunately, it’s broken for the time being by an accident.
The local sheriff (C. Thomas Howell) is in hot pursuit of some guy. I didn’t write his name down because, like so many characters in this movie, his only purpose is to cause trouble through his demise. Seconds after his introduction, this presumably naughty person runs into the sergeant’s truck.
Three things happen:
- Our speeding driver either dies or is carted off to a hospital. His impact on the plot done, he is quickly discarded.
- The truck is damaged, which ensures that the captain and sergeant have to stick around.
- The corporal’s coffin falls out of the truck, introducing camel spiders into the Arizona wilds3.
The truck can still move a bit, so the sheriff guides our nascent couple to a motel. Captain Sturges calls the base and arranges for a pick-up the next morning. Then he and the sheriff head to a diner, leaving the sergeant to guard the semi-broken vehicle with its corpse and munitions.
The diner is filled with characters, and from the attention given them it is clear that they are to become the primary group of survivors and victims for the remainder of the film. There’s the bickering couple with a distanced teenager; the owners of the diner; a pair of investors, who want to tear town the diner and build a casino; the waitress a heart of gold; and two guys so into their own jaded skepticism I can only assume their journey to Las Vegas is ironic. There’s also the minority chef, whose death signals the arrival of the camel spiders.
From this point the movie centers on survival, as the group attempts first to escape then to wait out and finally to destroy the 8-legged, Afghani invaders. Families come together, jerks get a clue, villains get theirs, and the innuendo-fueled romance of Sargeant Underwood and Captain
Sturges inexplicably blossoms.
There are two other groups of people who appear early in the film. Their paths never intersect that of the main characters. In fact, this isolation is so complete I suspect that at least one of these sections was added after principal shooting stopped. Given that the movie only clocks in at 79 minutes, I’m almost certain of it.
It would be wrong to call “Camel Spiders” cheap; it’s budget-conscious. Over decades of working for Corman, Wynorski has learned how to spend effectively. The sound and image are clear, because it pays to spend on recording. It doesn’t pay off as much to costume extras that only have a few minutes of screen time. He skimped on the Afghani rebels, and I honestly didn’t even notice that the first time I saw it. Characters are left as broad, archetypal strokes. Any investment in them comes from our associations with the familiar roles. A remark now and then reminds us where they all are on their usual path to redemption or spider chow.
Likewise, the CGI effects are mediocre at best. The spiders aren’t convincing, and they often fail to interact with the environment. Blood sprayed frequently but unrealistically. You’d think that here is where the money should be spent, to make the central menace believable. I’d think so too, really. I’m inclined to believe that Jim Wynorski agreed. It’s likely that with the volume of effects this was as good as could be provided by the budget. Given the choice of quantity over quality, well… this is a Roger Corman production.
The large number of spiders is a pretty good trade for quality. The demands on the actors and script are significantly reduced by the frequency of spider appearances. There’s some screaming, a lot of running, then a pause to drop some clumsy character beats — that’s the basic pulse of the movie. The rhythm never becomes frantic, but it’s active and never let’s the movie lose you entirely. In fact, it’s a lot of fun without being any good at all.
A case in point is what I call Chekov’s spider4, a spider shown in the first act that comes into play before the end of the movie. This is as close as the movie comes to a real payoff for paying attention. Shortly after the coffin falls out of the truck, a camel spider crawls into a car through its open sun roof. Almost immediately, someone takes the car to go get help but arrives safely. The spider, apparently, is napping. Much later on, long after the audience has given up on that particular plot point, someone else sticks his head in the car window and gets a face-full of spider. The delay is almost clever, and as such it sticks out in a movie that asks so very little of its audience.
Give “Camel Spiders” a minimal amount of your attention, and in return it will give you all it’s got. As little as it has, that’s a pretty even trade.
In fact, camel spiders are not “true spiders”. They’re related arachnids belonging to the order Solifugae. The movie alludes to this with the constant refrain of “It’s only got six legs!” In fact, camel spiders have eight legs.
Two camel spiders hitch a ride with the corporal’s body. However many there were by the time of the car accident (whereupon every last one fled for the desert), they all had to fit in the coffin. A few hours later, there were dozens of them at the diner. By the following morning, hundreds swarmed the abandoned facility, and some were the size of a person! These are breeding and growth rates that don’t just defy reason — they walk up to reason, break its cane, take its wallet, and give it a good kick before running away laughing down the street.
Why do the experts always walk right up to get bitten? Don’t they cover that in the introductory classes?
There’s a locked door in the gypsum plant. We never find out what’s behind it, and it’s sort of driving me nuts.
1. Camel spiders are non-venomous, grow to about 6″ max, and top out at about 10 mph.
2. Melissa Brasselle is not only a Corman regular but has worked almost exclusively with Jim Wynorski. Out of a few dozen appearances, no fewer than 17 have been in his films.
3. While this particularly fictional breed of camel spider is indigenous only to the Bronson Canyon region of Afghanistan, real camel spiders are present throughout the world in sandy environments.
4. Yeah. I referenced Anton Chekov in the review of a crap spider movie.