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 Perez
Written by Adam Glass and Jack Perez
Starring Daniel Letterle, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chelan Simmons, Carmen Electra, Adam West, C. Ernst Harth, Alana Husband, La La Anthony, and Nick Carter
The horror movies of the 1950s have a certain cachet, not as exemplary films but as enjoyably cheesy. It’s a nostalgia thing, and it’s no surprise that filmmakers like Larry Blamire have used that as inspiration for their own efforts. Capturing that feeling of how we think movies were is a delicate task, and what is intended as homage can come of as misinformed, disingenuous, and cynical. By way of example, I give you the MTV production, Monster Island.
Directed by William Berke
Written by Carroll Young
Starring Johnny Weissmuller, Sherry Moreland, William Henry, Lyle Talbot, Joel Friedkin, and George Eldredge
Odds are that if you know about Johnny Weissmuller at all, you know him as an actor who played Tarzan. Maybe you even know about his pockets full of Olympic gold and record-setting competitive swimming career. If you read my last review, you also know he faced a giant spider in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery. Well, my friends, today you’ll learn about his second encounter with a big damn spider, as Jungle Jim in Fury of the Congo.
Directed by Gary Jones
Written by Boaz Davidson, Stephen David Brooks, Jace Anderson, and Adam Gierasch
Starring Lana Parrilla, Josh Green, Oliver Macready, Nick Swarts, Mark Phelan, and Leslie Zemeckis
Ever since H.G. Wells wrote The Food of the Gods, scientists have been creating bigger spiders. Usually it’s in the pursuit of better nutrition, but every now and then it’s a straightforward attempt to weaponize arachnids. The film Spiders is the first entry in a series of movies based on this inadvisable weapons program.
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.
aka The Gold Spider
Written and Directed by Segundo de Chomón
This one is a special treat. Not only is it the earliest big spider movie I’ve heard of, but it’s also one of the oldest surviving representations of a spider on film! It’s only eight minutes long, and one shot is badly damaged, but L’araignée d’or is a splendid example of early narrative film and special effects.
Directed by Mike Mendez
Written by Gregory Gieras
Starring Greg Grunberg, Lin Shaye, Ruben Pla, Alexis Kendra, Lombardo Boyar, and Ray Wise
Titles are important. They set audience expectations of tone and content. Other factors play into it of course — trailers, posters, tie-in products — but in the end, it’s just the title listed with a time. So when I learned there was a film named Big Ass Spider! I figured it would deliver a big damn spider, a comical tone, and hopefully enough action to make up for its shortcomings. Spoiler: my guess was right.
Written Directed by Brett Piper
Starring Erin Brown (as Misty Mundae), Julian Wells, Rob Monkiewicz, Erika Smith, Michael R. Thomas, Caitlin Ross, and Sylvianne Chebance
If you’re setting out to review every big spider movie commercially available, you’re going to eventually have to deal with sleazy movies. I’m talking low-budget films with lots of gratuitous nudity and sex, simulated or otherwise. When I did a movie podcast years ago, the episode that broke me was about Jess Franco’s Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula. Two of my friends took my displeasure as a challenge and watched for themselves. One said he’d seen worse but agreed it wasn’t good. The other sent a messenger to kick me in the junk for him. At least I’d earned it.
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.