In a fog of flu-ey, sore-throaty exhaustion on Friday, I stumbled across In the Dust of the Stars (1974), an East German sci-fi flick that looked just cheesy, bizarre, and diverting enough to distract me from my condition for an hour and a half. It turned out to be all that, but also a bit more that I wasn’t expecting.
This colorful skiffy weirdness centers around six cosmonauts from Planet Cyrno, who travel to Planet Tem in response to a distress signal. When they arrive, though, the Temians convince them their trip was wasted: the SOS was a mistake. But was it? Further investigation reveals that the party-happy Temians are concealing a dark secret: the subjugation of an entire underclass of people. Can Commander Akala and her crew liberate the planet?
Classified in the capsule description as “groovy” science fiction, In the Dust of the Stars — outwardly, anyway — is the worst kind of dated skiffy shlock. Opening sluggishly, the film holds interest primarily by deploying outrageous costumes, bizarre sets, scantily clad dancers, and amusingly strange behavior. On the surface it’s the kind of cheap, cheesy science fiction that gives the field a bad name.
But it’s also a gloriously weird film, creatively leveraging its limited budget to loopy and entertaining effect. Its 1970s “futuristic” look is delightfully tacky and appalling; one can imagine Devo shopping the film for uniform ideas. The parade of psychedelic eyeball kicks is a hoot. Giant snakes slither across the drink tables in the Temian party hall…the Temians brainwash the cosmonauts by shining lights on their foreheads…party-goers imbibe by spritzing aerosol cans into their mouths…the villainous leader of Tem lives in a hall of mirrors, and plays a synthesizer that looks like a Lite-Brite and somehow conjures frantic bellydancers…a sideways hairdryer is a devious torture device.
Then, just when you’re wondering why you’re still watching, the film slips in an intriguing political edge. Its mindless sci-fi trappings disguise a surprising anti-authoritarian message, and within its ham-fisted story there’s an intriguing glimpse of artistic rebellion within a communist regime. I’m not sure I would have made it all the way through if I hadn’t been sick, but under the circumstances, this one turned out to be a pleasant surprise.