Cosmic Voyage (1936) poster

Cosmic Voyage (1936)


aka Cosmic Journey; The Space Ship; The Space Voyage
(Kosmicheskiy Reys)

USSR. 1936.


Director – Vasily Zhuravlyov, Screenplay – A. Filimonov, Based on the Novel by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Photography (b&w) – A. Galperin, Production Design – Yu. Svesh, M. Tiunov & Aleksei Utkin. Production Company – Mosfilm.


Sergey Komarov (Professor Pavel Ivanovich Sedych), K. Moskalenko (Professor Marina), Vassili Gaponenko (Andryusha), Nikolay Feoktistov (Viktor Orlov), V. Kovrigin (Professor Karin)


Moscow, 1946. At the All Union Institute of Interplanetary Communication, Professor Pavel Ivanovich Sedych has built a rocketship with which he plans to travel to The Moon. Professor Karin regards Sedych as a madman and tries to stop him. However, Sedych and his crew create a distraction and sneak in and launch the rocket. Young Andryusha also manages to sneak on board. The rocket successfully lands on The Moon and Sedych and his cosmonauts set out to explore it.

The very first depictions of space travel on the screen came from Georges Melies with A Trip to the Moon (1902) and An Impossible Voyage (1904). These produced imitators for several years. As cinema developed, the journeys became more sophisticated with the likes of the Danish Heaven Ship (1918), culminating in Fritz Lang’s extraordinary Woman in the Moon (1929), which imagined the construction of a rocket and launch to The Moon. It would be another couple of decades before George Pal’s definitive take on the lunar landing with Destination Moon (1950). (I have a more detailed listing of these early films in my essay NASA and the Space Program).

The Russians started into the act and created their own cinematic space launches around this time, not long after the establishment of the Soviet Union. Their first SF film was Aelita (1924), which imagined a space expedition to Mars and the carrying of the Communist revolution to the masses there. Aelita is the work that received all the attention, while the subsequent Cosmic Voyage was overlooked. Aelita has undergone revivals but it was not until the YouTube era that a subtitled version of Cosmic Voyage became available. Wikipedia makes the claim that the film was withdrawn from circulation because the Soviet authorities saw the Moon landing sequences as unrealistic (although I question these claims as the same article is inaccurate about a number of other details). This is a shame as Cosmic Voyage is much more conceptually adventurous, scientifically accurate and all around the better film than Aelita.

The film is based on a book by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935). Tsiolkovsky was a fascinating figure who was way ahead of his time. From the 1880s, he was publishing a series of essays dealing with the practical means of building rockets and space travel, including being the first to devise the idea of a space elevator. Tsiolkovsky spent all his life working as a schoolteacher, during which time he self-financed various experiments in aerodynamics. During this time, Tsiolkovsky wrote several juvenile works of science fiction, popularising the idea of spaceflight. As far as I can tell without having an English-translated translated copy to compare, Cosmic Voyage is loosely based on his novel Beyond the Moon (1920). Tsiolkovsky died of cancer before the film ever came out.

The film is a dazzling architectural fantasy. It opens on an amazing vision of a future Moscow with giant bridges reaching into the sky – later we see the same model of the city lit up by night. The most incredible set-piece is the spaceship. The filmmakers introduce the rocket in a stunning vision as it takes up a whole hangar (where it feels as though the filmmakers built a colossal model that took up an entire soundstage) with tiny vehicles buzzing along its length and up and down ramps that surround it, even scaffolding that reaches to multiple levels and elevators that run between. The camera is placed at a low angle throughout to even further emphasize the size of the rocket.

The moon rocket in its hangar in Cosmic Voyage (1936)
The moon rocket in its hangar

What is even more extraordinary is how much Cosmic Voyage predicts, unlike Woman in the Moon, which got a good deal wrong such as depicting the Moon as having air. There is a passable depiction of weightlessness with the astronauts flying around the cabin. The film also gets depictions of low gravity on the lunar surface right and creates some believable-looking spacesuits. Tsiolkovsky has the novel idea of dealing with the g-forces of take-off by immersing the crew in what we are told are baths where we see them inside what look like phone booths filled with water.

The zero gravity scenes are conducted with some undeniable imagination and quite good effects. The finest scenes come once the explorers land on The Moon. Director Vasily Zhuravlyov creates amazing shots of them leaping about in low gravity. Especially striking are the scenes where we see the explorers bouncing down the sides of a ravine, jumping between rocky outcrops that crumble beneath them and then a rescue attempt as the rocks collapse down into a cavern, burying one of the party.

The main problem with the film is that it doesn’t really imagine much to do when the ship reaches the Moon (a problem that most of the abovementioned Moon Landing films have). We get some scenes with the astronauts exploring the surface. There is minor drama with one astronaut trapped under a rockfall and the question that they might not be able to make it home whereupon they signal for help by spelling out CCCP (Cryllic for the USSR) on the lunar surface, but the film needed more drama than that.

On some levels, it is still a crude film – it came out in 1936, the better part of a decade after the US has switched over to sound film, but clearly the Soviets were lagging behind and this is still made silent. There is some undeniable quaintness to the film when you look back on it nearly ninety years later during the course of which the real-life Moon Landing occurred. There’s the silliness that goes on over Sergey Komarov’s professor packing his suitcase for the trip to The Moon. Some of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s SF works were juveniles, intended for young audiences, and quite a bit of the film here places its focus on a young kid (Vassili Gaponenko) who sneaks along for the journey.

Full film available here

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