A TRIP TO MARS
Up until this point, space travel had been the province of Georges Melies whimsies such as A Trip to the Moon (1902) and An Impossible Voyage (1904) and Melies imitators like The ? Motorist (1906) and Segundo de Chomons A Voyage to Jupiter (1907) and Excursion to the Moon (1908). These took place in an unserious vein that was more fantasy than science-fiction The Moon and Sun had faces, where escape velocity was achieved by vehicles travelling so fast they took off into orbit and then did a circuit around the rings of Saturn and so on. Heaven Ship was the first to take spaceflight out of the cartoonish and into serious speculation. Certainly, the space journey here, which takes place aboard a ship that looks like a cross between a biplane and a dirigible, is no more serious in practicality than any of these. (The film was imagining a space journey before the era of rocketry and was unscientifically conceiving of it as being an extension of the new technological marvel of the airplane). Nevertheless, Heaven Ship was a serious effort that paved the way towards other works of space exploration of the silent era such as the Soviet Aelita (1924) and Fritz Langs Woman in the Moon (1929), which was all that was said on the subject until George Pals Destination Moon (1950) firmly set the topic of spaceflight down with rigorous scientific regard (not to mention added sound and colour to the equation).
Having abandoned the whimsies of Melies, these early spaceflight films then turned towards Utopianism. Aelita saw Mars as in need of being reformed by the Communist Revolution; the H.G. Wells-written Things to Come (1936), which climaxed with a spaceflight attempt, was a Utopian vision that saw the elimination of a world rent by the horrors of war and the establishment of a new society based on scientific principles. Fritz Langs Woman in the Moon wasnt Utopian but it was an outthrust of his Utopian vision in Metropolis (1927), which imagined an industrialist future with the need for peaceful mediation between masters and proletariat.
Heaven Ship was released before the end of World War I and as a result its idea of Utopia is an immediate reaction to the horrendous conflict that was ravaging much of Europe at the time. Thus the society found on Mars is seen as one that venerates peace above all else it almost looks like a hippie vision of Utopia fifty years before the real thing where the men wear robes and the girls come in white dresses with garlands of flowers in their hair. The Martians never do much more as a society than uphold the virtue of peace, non-violence and vegetarianism there is one hilarious scene where Gunnar Tolnaes whips out his pistol to demonstrate the nature of meat-eating and shoots a bird flying overhead whereupon a large stuffed buzzard falls at his feet. They are placed on trial and convicted in a court procedure that merely requires them to seek redemption and ponder upon what they have done. During Tolnaes subsequent romance with Lilly Jacobson, we get cuts made between the idyllic Martian society and a montage of scenes back on Earth raucous drunken partying in dancehalls, people in gambling dens to suggest that life on Earth is corrupt by contrast. Finally, Gunnar Tolnaes and Lilly Jacobson are married on Mars, the film follows their return journey to Earth and reaches an end that looks forward to their union having produced the seeds of peace and hope. While upbeat, if you contrast this to the horrors and savagery that was occurring on the battlefields of Europe around the same time, it is a hopelessly idealistic end that seems no better than someone idly wishing why cant we just all get along better?
The problem with Heaven Ship is the same one that all Utopian stories face in a world that is perfect, nothing much ever happens to create the drama that a story needs to work. Once on Mars, as soon as the trial is over (fairly quickly), little occurs beyond the romance. Director Holger-Madsen does demonstrate some occasional lyrical visual poetry Gunnar Tolnaes going to sleep by the Tree of Love outlined against a lake while his love Lilly Jacobson goes to sleep in a forest of giant glowing flower petals to await his dream of her. It is images like these the sort that someone like Fritz Lang would have delighted in that Heaven Ship needed more of.
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