FROM THE TSARS TO THE STARS: A JOURNEY THROUGH RUSSIAN FANTASTIK CINEMA at Cinematheque Ontario (317 Dundas West) from Friday (March 2) to March 17. Screenings $10.14, stu/srs/child $5.90. For complete listings, see Indie & Rep Film, page 86. 416-968-3456, www.cinemathequeontario.ca. Rating: NNN
When it comes to the Russian tradition of "cinema fantastik," or science fiction, most moviegoers are familiar with Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, remade by Steven Soderbergh starring George Clooney. Or perhaps they saw last year's Russian vampire romp Nochnoy Dozor (Night Watch).
Thanks to Cinematheque Ontario, sci-fi fans will have a chance to see a dozen classics of the genre, from Karen Shakhnazarov's Zero City to Alexander Ptushko's Ruslan And Ludmila.
TO THE STARS BY HARD WAYS directed by Richard Viktorov. 118 minutes. Saturday (March 10), 4 pm. Rating: NNN
Known to mst3k fans as huma- noid Woman and containing the most ridiculous guy-in-robot-suit to never utter the words "Danger, Will Robinson," To The Stars By Hard Ways (Cherez Ternii K Zvezdam, 1981) is an otherwise standard first-contact tale that has one main attraction: Yelena Metyolkina.
With her buzz cut and large, expressive eyes suggesting the aliens from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Metyolkina is eerily mesmerizing as alien android Niya, a character not so far removed from Persis Khambatta's Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Niya is the sole survivor on an alien craft discovered by the crew of the starship Pushkin. After a bizarrely mundane sequence in which she is sent to Earth to live with a model Russian family, she leads a new expedition to save her dying home world.
Unintentionally campy, yet unapologetic about its space-opera intentions, this is a goofy yet occasionally quite artful sci-fi film.
Jumping the shark
THE AMPHIBIAN MAN directed by Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennadi Kazansky. 95 minutes. March 10, 8:45 pm. Rating: NNN
One of the biggest blockbusters in Russian cinema (it sold more than 65 million tickets when it was released in 1962), Amphibian Man (Chelovek Amfibiya) is The Creature From The Black Lagoon meets Beauty And The Beast, with a couple of surreal MGM-style musical numbers thrown in for good measure.
Vladimir Korenev, who resembles silent screen star Rudolph Valentino, is the titular sea creature, Ichtyandr (literally Fish Man in Greek). His damaged lungs were replaced with shark gills by his mad scientist father, who dreams of creating an underwater republic.
Unaffected by his father's utopian ambitions, Ichtyandr swims the Crimea wearing a silver body suit, flippers and goggles that wouldn't have been out of place in an Esther Williams swim sequence. His rescue of young peasant girl Gutiere (Anastasia Vertinskaya), who's betrothed to an evil moustache-twirling sea captain (Mikhail Kozakov), sets up the requisite love triangle.
Undoubtedly ridiculous in much the same way as American films about assaultive 50-foot women and giant atomic tarantulas, Amphibian Man nevertheless is quite charming because, like Edward Scissorhands, with which it has more than a little in common, it plays out its strange love story with such straight-faced sincerity.
STALKER directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 163 minutes. March 15, 8 pm. Rating: NN
Stalker is Andrei Tarkovsky's second science fiction film (after Solaris), and as in the earlier work, he downplays the sci-fi in favour of a stupefyingly sombre post-apocalyptic drudge-fest about the quest for God - a big no-no in the officially atheistic USSR and quite the bore elsewhere.
In a bleak, unspecified future that looks a lot like Cold War Russia, three men a writer, a professor and their guide, a stalker journey into the Zone, a deserted and forbidden place outside the city that's said to hold the key to making everyone's dreams come true.
The setting alternately resembles an abandoned train yard and the inside of a drainage pipe, and the nuclear power plant prominent on the skyline seems to foretell the Chernobyl disaster of seven years later. The stalker even has a mutant child, possibly the result of Daddy's irradiated sperm.
While each of the characters represents art, science or faith, that intriguing concept goes unfulfilled as the characters become interchangeable (they even look the same), and they never engage in any meaningful debate. Their journey, which seems to be only a few hundred metres long yet takes up almost three hours of film time, is made without any sense of urgency or importance.
You'll long for the appearance of even one of Mad Max's axe-wielding maniacs, just to relieve the tedium.