From the earliest days of the Soviet Union, Russian artists wowed the world with some of the first science fiction classics of the 20th century. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1920 dystopian novel, We, went on to inspire Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Meanwhile, the 1924 silent film, Aelita: Queen of Mars, stunned audiences around the world and set the standard for sci-fi movies for years to come. Of course, Russian sci-fi continued to progress with the onset of the Spare Race between the Soviet Union and the United States. And in recent years, contemporary Russian cinema has been churning out a growing number of impressive sci-fi hits.
All that being said, here are the top 10 best Russian and Soviet sci-fi movies of all time. Enjoy!
It is not an exaggeration to say that every Russian knows the film, Kin-dza-dza! This cult classic tells a riveting story about the darker side of humanity. After two men find themselves stranded on a faraway desert planet called Pluke, they discover it has been exploited of all its resources by a greedy, out-of-control society. People there are divided into two social classes: the lowly Patsaks and the haughty Chatlanians they must submit to by performing a ridiculous, ritualized greeting. Kin-dza-dza is a dark comedy that will leave you laughing out loud throughout it, while also making you consider some important questions.
Fans of Soviet comedy know that any film by blockbuster director, Leonid Gaidai, is going to be a rip-roaring good watch, and Ivan Vasilyevich Changes His Profession is no exception. When a present-day Moscow inventor, Shurik, builds a time machine, he accidentally swaps his apartment building manger, Ivan Vasilyevich Bunsha, with his namesake and doppelganger, Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Laugh follows laugh, as the bumbling Soviet building manager and the angry Tsar swap roles. This is really one of the most beloved Russian movies of all time – holding the top rated spot of all Russian movies on KinoPoisk (Russian IMDb). It’s also relatively popular abroad, but sometimes the jokes related to Russian history don’t translate so well.
For example, as Tsar Ivan the Terrible strolls around a present day Moscow apartment, he stops to inspect a print of a painting on a wall (picture above). With a raised eyebrow, he walks away. Though many foreigners miss this gag, to Russian audiences this scene is absolutely hilarious. The painting we see is a copy of Ilya Repin’s 1885 masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16th, 1581. It depicts the tsar having just accidentally killed his own son in a fit of rage. It’s ironic that the tsar we see in the movie has no idea what the painting’s subject is. If you also find this funny, you can always buy a high quality poster of the painting from RUS & SOV and relive this movie scene in your home!
Planet of Storms is a noteworthy sci-fi movie about the first international expedition to Venus. The pioneering developments in special effects technology used in this film were a quantum leap beyond what was typical for the genre at the time. Generations of film students around the world have studied this film and been greatly influenced by its designs and aesthetic. George Lucas even tried to meet Pavel Klushantsev, the director of Planet of Storms, crediting him as the “godfather” of the Star Wars universe.
It was in the USSR of the 1920s that many a great cinematic innovation were born. One of these, in the form of Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita, was the creation of the sci-fi genre in film. Aelita was the very first movie to depict space flight and an alien society. In this fantastic story, a Soviet engineer builds a spaceship to take him to Mars. Once there, he falls in love with the Cleopatra-like Princess Aelita and also organizes a Bolshevik-style uprising of the Martian underclass. However, the uprising reveals Aelita’s true colors. Beyond its gripping story, Aelita was also instrumental in setting the standard for what audiences around the world came to expect of sets, costumes, and musical scores for the budding sci-fi genre.
Stalker is a timeless classic and maybe the greatest of master director, Andrei Tarkovsky’s works. The film is based on the novel, Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky brothers, and is deeply infused with Tarkovsky’s philosophical thinking. At the center of the plot is an expedition of three characters – Stalker, Writer, and Professor – who are traveling into the legendary Zone. The Zone is a mysterious area, sealed off and guarded by the military. The travelers go into it in search of the Room, where it is said visitors are granted their most cherished wishes. A powerful and contemplative movie, Stalker is a beautiful work of art that delves deep into the human soul.
It’s tough to decide which of notable director, Konstantin Lopushansky’s two greatest films to include in this list: A Visitor to a Museum or Dead Man’s Letters. Ultimately, the less well-known, A Visitor to a Museum, is the one that more people need to see. Like Dead Man’s Letters, A Visitor to a Museum explores what a post-apocalyptic world would look like and how humans search for truth and meaning. The planet is disfigured from a terrible environmental disaster caused by thoughtless overconsumption. Among the humans that are left, few have remained sane or retained what we would consider a normal physical appearance. The film’s hero goes on a journey to a flooded museum in search of a portal that he believes can save the world.
Sputnik was one of 2020’s biggest Russian film releases and is an exciting addition to the slew of recent quality sci-fi films that have been coming out of Russia. This sci-fi, come horror movie is set in 1983, the heyday of Soviet space exploration. During a manned orbit, a catastrophe occurs and the spacecraft crashes back on earth. One cosmonaut is dead, the other, Konstanin Veshnyakov, miraculously survives. However, his behavior proves suspicious. A leading neurologist, Tatyana Klimova, is brought in to supervise Veshnyakov’s recovery, but soon she realizes a terrible truth the space program has been hiding from her. Veshnyakov has a terrifying alien monster growing inside of him.
Heart of a Dog is a masterpiece based on the eponymous story by Mikhail Bulgakov and is actually the top rated Russian movie per IMDb. Bulgakov wrote the original text in 1925 and it was subsequently confiscated by the Soviet secret police. Although, decades later, the book would eventually be distributed across the Soviet Union through underground circles, it was only in 1987 that the Soviet government officially published it. As such, when this film came out in 1988, it was a real special event. The plot of the film adheres to the book closely and follows the results of an incredible experiment by one Professor Preobrazhensky. He transforms a stray dog into a human, who then wreaks havoc across Preobrazhensky’s life and Moscow in general. A message from from this brilliant work is posing the question of whether it was possible to truly create a new Homo Sovieticus.
Solaris is another Tarkovsky masterpiece that’s well worth watching. The film tells the story of Soviet psychologist, Kris Kelvin, who departs on a fact-finding mission to discover why everyone on a space station orbiting the distant planet of Solaris has gone mad. As it happens, the ocean of Solaris is able to read minds, probing into the depths of the cosmonauts’ subconscious. When Kelvin arrives at the station, he finds that reality becomes unreliable, as he descends into a hallucinatory abyss about his deceased wife. Not everyone was enamored with the film, however. Polish writer, Stanisław Lem, who wrote the original Solaris novel, criticized Tarkovsky’s adaptation for focusing on “people’s erotic problems in outer space.” I’m not sure what he would have made of the 2002 Solaris remake with George Clooney then…
Family-friendly sci-fi director, Richard Viktorov, created an exhilarating trilogy about Soviet children exploring the universe: Moscow-Cassiopeia (1974), Teens in the Universe (1975), and To The Stars By Hard Ways (1980). The children in the expedition can’t be older than fourteen years old, as the journey to their target planet will take them two decades to reach. This perfectly reasonable rationale doesn’t work out as planned, however, as an unplanned acceleration of the space ship leaves the cosmonauts remaining children when they arrive at the Cassiopeia constellation. Naturally, this makes for a thrilling film experience for any young viewers!