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 Jack Sholder
Written by Mark Sevi
Starring Chris Potter, Alex Reid, José Sancho, Neus Asensi, Ravil Isyanov, and Luis Lorenzo Crespo
It feels like most of the time we see giant spiders in the wild, they’re in caves. Certainly when they’re the focus of the plot, they’re in or approaching population centers. The one in Arachnid is an outlier in a number of respects, but primarily for spending the entire film on a tropical island.
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 Arthur Hilton
Written by Roy Hamilton, Al Zimbalist, and Jack Rabin
Starring Sonny Tufts, Victor Jory, Marie Windsor, William Phipps, Douglas Fowley, Carol Brewster, Susan Morrow, and Suzanne Alexander
American society had changed during WWII. A shortage of men had brought women into the manufacturing workplace to help with the war effort, and with over 400,000 US casualties a lot of men weren’t coming back to reclaim those jobs. The men who prided themselves for saving the world felt threatened by the new independence of women, and their fear expressed itself in the repressive attitudes expressed as norms in television and films of the time. It can be difficult to recognize this in some of the more popular media, which comes off as merely dated. For your entry-point into seeing the reactionary misogyny of the time you need a clumsy and blatant display of it such as presented in the film Cat-Women of the Moon. As plot details are important to making this point, spoilers for a terrible 63-year old movie abound.
Written by Raphael Hayes
Directed by David Lowell Rich
Writing a review of The Three Stooges is an interesting challenge. Narrative coherence is irrelevant when the story only exists to provide an excuse for eye-gouging and set-wrecking. Dialogue doesn’t need to be more eloquent than an angry “Why you!” I’m not even certain that normal standards of acting apply. But, since there’s a giant spider in their film “Have Rocket — Will Travel”, I’m prepared to work through all that.
Let’s start with the title. If it doesn’t sound familiar, it should. Stooge titles tend to be plays on expressions or titles of other works. In this case, it’s a reference to the popular western show “Have Gun — Will Travel” that began airing in 1957 — two years before the release of this film. There’s no other connection to the show, but the reference is reinforced with a title song that is sung by the Stooges over the opening credits.
Speaking of credits, the Stooge line-up for this outing is Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Joe DeRita (Curly-Joe). Curly-Joe gets some guff for being the second substitute Curly, who himself replaced Shemp. (Being the third Stooge was seemingly as fatal as drumming for Spinal Tap1.) Curly-Joe does a decent enough reproduction of Curly’s routines, and he provides some genuinely entertaining moments, so I’m not going to dump on the guy. I think he just suffered from being cast at a time when the Stooges were just re-enacting stale clones of their previous routines.
Speaking of clones, I should give a quick rundown of how the set pieces stitch together.
We start with a rocket test by the National Space Foundation (NSF). This is their 4th launch, and there’s a monkey on board — because I guess in the 1950s it was mandatory to put a monkey in space movies. The test fails, and the rocket crashes. The Stooges, who are the maintenance men on the base, are put in charge of guarding the fallen rocket. This leads to the Stooges chasing the monkey all over the rocket until it accidentally rights itself.
Here’s where things get unnecessarily complicated. Dr. Ingrid Naarveg, lead (and apparently only) scientist at the NSF, is nice to the Stooges. They see her as a daughter and want to help her keep the project alive. In order to do that she needs to find a better fuel. Stooges to the rescue! In the course of a night they brew up a more powerful fuel (the secret is sugar!) and load it into the rocket.
The head of the NSF, angered by the Stooge’s nocturnal activities (and the inevitable ancillary destruction), manages to chase them into the rocket and launch it into space. Our promised space travel is under way at last!
Once on Venus, the Stooges encounter a talking unicorn, a giant spider, and a tyrannical robot (that makes clones of them because it likes their form). They also sing more of the title song. On their return, the Stooges are hailed as heroes. They leave the clones in their place and run off with the talking unicorn to sing more of that infernal song.
You don’t have to be a Stooge fan to find their rise to fame predictable. It’s a given in American comedy that experts are fools and fools are experts. Opposites attract, experts are unmasked, the simple are rewarded, and there’s probably a wedding.
In this case, the wedding is between Dr. Naarveg and the base psychiatrist. Barely in the movie, their roles consisted primarily of 1) Dr. Naarveg providing unnecessary motivation to the Stooges and 2) the psychiatrist repeatedly telling her that she’ll only find happiness by marrying him and abandoning her career. He finally convinces her with a sudden agarring2. It was, after all, 1959, and while a comedy could make a woman the lead scientist in a space program it would also make certain to put her back in her place by the end.
Additionally, while the pompous head of the NSF gets a humiliating take-down, remember that three bumbling clods managed in one night to produce the breakthrough in fuel that eluded Dr. Naarveg. That’s got to hurt.
Some of the Stooge routines were painful, too. Interestingly, it wasn’t due to the performances. A classic routine is a classic routine, and old and fat as they are the Stooges are skilled physical comedians. I place the blame on the director, David Lowell Rich. Rich was a workman director, the bulk of whose career was spent in TV. B-Movie fans may have seen the TV movie “Satan’s School for Girls” (an Aaron Spelling production), but his most remembered work is possibly “The Concorde — Airport ’79”, the final nail in the coffin for the Airport franchise.
It’s clear that Rich and cinematographer Ray Cory had no idea how to film the Stooges. These are guys who mastered their craft on the stage, and when they went to film they largely kept that full view ethos. They fill the screen with broad movements and large messes. Here, the camera often slows things down, breaking the frenzy of action into careful and discrete pieces. It just doesn’t work well, and (as in “Yellowbeard” and “The Villain”) the humor doesn’t survive filming.
That isn’t to say that nothing works. A few scenes work very well, mostly because the close shots are mixed well with larger fields of chaos. Two of these are standard Stooge set pieces: the bedroom and the ballroom. The first shows the unusual morning routine of the Stooges, and everyone wrestles with appliances, clothing, and furniture. The second, of course, winds up in a pie fight.
The society ball is where Curly-Joe shines. While the others are dancing enthusiastically with their new admirers, Curly-Joe just wants a piece of cake. His doomed effort sends the soirée flying face-first into its pie-filled fate, while he calmly accepts what is left for him. It’s a sequence that’s both entertaining and oddly reassuring.
The other fun scene was the invention of the rocket fuel. Dr. Naarveg’s lab becomes a kitchen as the Stooges start mixing ingredients in a large vat. Much of the ensuing business is familiar, but it’s less pat than the other scenes. There’s something delightful about Larry intently brewing coffee over a bunsen burner, like the Walter White of caffeinated beverages. Of course, not even Larry tried to cook with the flame-throwing giant spider.
That’s right: flame-throwing giant spider.
Almost immediately after disembarking on Venus, the Stooges are threatened by a giant tarantula (courtesy of forced perspective shots and editing). Then the film stops, and a light beam is drawn in, emanating from the tarantula. Flame pursues the Stooges as they run away.
I’d like to tell you that there’s no real reason for there to be a flame-throwing giant spider on Venus. The crazy part is that there is a terribly convoluted reason.
You see, despite all the nonsense about making fuel, the rocket is launched by igniting a lengthy fuse. It’s a strange plot point, requiring the base commander to accidentally (and angrily) light the fuse to send the Stooges on their voyage. Mysteriously, there is some fuse left for the return trip, and it’s up to the flame-throwing giant spider to reignite it.
I fault screenwriter Raphael Hayes for the clumsy movement of the script, but I have to admire his fierce devotion to the fuse gag — a device that backed him so far into a narrative corner that only a flame-throwing giant spider could get him out of it.
- While rocketing to Venus, the Stooges turn on the communication console and get a TV Western. They change the channel and tune in the NSF lab, where Dr. Naarveg and her suitor are engaged in a dramatic scene in the style of a soap opera. I really liked the thought of the console having been installed so the monkey could watch his favorite shows.
- The robot is delightfully ill-constructed. It looks like the prop guy just stuck a bunch of crap on a box until he ran out.
- The Stooge snore gag works every time.
- There’s a keyhole at the base of the rocket. I find that charming, for some reason.
1. To be fair, Joe Besser didn’t die “in office”, as it were.
2. agar, v.t. to kiss the bejeesus out of a co-star. Named for John Agar, the grand master of the technique.