“If Mankind Perished Utterly”: Nazim Tulyahodzhaev’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, 1984

Exhibit / November 6, 2017

Object Name: There Will Come Soft Rains
Maker and Year: Nazim Tulyahodzhaev (Director), UzbekFilm, 1984
Object Type: Film
Description: (Steve Toyoshima)

There Will Come Soft Rains (Будет ласковый дождь) is an animated film produced in the former Soviet Union, based on the Ray Bradbury short story of the same name. Though obscure in the rest of the world during the Cold War, it has gained a cult following in recent years. A VHS-quality copy of the film has been uploaded to YouTube, and appears to be the only version available at this time. 

Originally printed in 1950, Bradbury’s story follows the last day of an automated house in the wake of a nuclear apocalypse. The title is from a poem by Sarah Teasdale, written after she witnessed the horrors of the First World War. It described a world that nature reclaims after humanity has ceased to be. Bradbury adopts this poem’s tone and features it in his story.

Written just a few years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a few months before the start of the Korean War, There Will Come Soft Rains and the UzbekFilm adaptation reflect the fears of their respective eras. During the years between the original story and the 1984 version, the Cold War had broadened, touching off violence around the world as the two superpowers supported smaller proxy conflicts. In 1983, Soviet jets shot down a Korean airliner that they believed was on an espionage mission, provoking condemnation from the United States. The militant stance of new American President Ronald Reagan, his announcement of a US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, nicknamed “Star Wars” by the media), and plans to install missiles in Europe set nuclear tensions at an all-time high. In fact, much of the world felt that a nuclear war was inevitable. The invasion of Grenada and NATO war games exercises that simulated pre-nuclear attack communications put Soviet leadership at high alert for a first strike by their Western foes; the Kremlin wanted to avoid making the same mistake that Stalin had in 1941—ignoring Hitler’s aggression until it was nearly too late.

It was in this tense political environment that UzbekFilm‘s There Will Come Soft Rains was released. A studio in current day Uzbekistan that was originally founded in the 1920s, UzbekFilm expanded from art cinema to producing children’s fantasy films and animated features in the 1980s. There is a marionette show-like sense of playfulness and movement to the cartoons they produced, with a heavy emphasis on colors and textures. There Will Come Soft Rains was directed by Nazim Tulyahodzhaev, a prolific director and actor who had graduated from the Moscow State Institute of the Theatrical Arts in the 1970s and is still working today.

Tulyahodzhaev adapted Bradbury’s story for the 1980s, creating the character of the robot caretaker of the house, which didn’t exist in Bradbury’s original story. (The unsettling design of Robot was based on Lou Cameron’s Classics Illustrated cover for H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.) Where the automated house in the original story gradually fell apart after its owners were vaporized while playing outside, it’s the paranoia of Robot that leads to the destruction of the home in Tulyahodzhaev’s version. 

When the film opens, it’s December 31st, 2026, in Allendale, California. It’s not entirely clear how long ago the nuclear war happened, or how long the McClellan family lived in a post-apocalyptic world. The McClellan home has been fortified for a nuclear war, with radiation suits hiding behind sliding cabinet doors for daily use by the family. Everything in the home is automated. The preparation of food, movement through the house, even religion is administered by the omnipresent Robot. During the time of prayer, a small crucifix slides out of a small door on the wall of the elder Mrs. McClellan’s room as a somber organ tune plays.

The McClellans themselves can no longer benefit from any of these conveniences, as we find out they were vaporized sometime before the events of the film. Somehow, the nuclear attack was able to breach the windows of the bunker, and the family has been reduced to ash. In a horrifying scene, Robot attempts to wake his charges by swiveling their beds upwards, spilling the remains of the family to the floor. Likely this is meant to invoke the neutron bomb, an atomic weapon designed to maximize radiation damage to humans caught within the radius and minimize damage to nearby structures. Its development became a focal point of the anti-nuke movement in the United States, with President Jimmy Carter only finding out about the program in the newspaper. Though Carter shelved the project, Reagan would become its champion. As he said in the late 1970s:

Very simply, it is the dreamed of death ray weapon of science fiction. It kills enemy soldiers but doesn’t blow up the surrounding countryside or destroy villages, towns and cities…..Here is a deterrent weapon available to us at much lower cost than trying to match the enemy gun for gun, tank for tank, plane for plane.

The fate of the McClellans is a visceral reminder of what it would mean to use such a weapon. Though they have been destroyed, their possessions are intact, with even small toys in the children’s room still walking around on battery power.

In the end, it is the intrusion of a curious bird through one of the broken windows of the home that sends Robot into a frenzy. The robotic arm sprouts sharp steel talons and attempts to smash the bird, which it sees as an intruder and danger to the family. The furniture, Mrs. McClellan’s wheelchair, and the crucifix are demolished during the rampage. Blinded after colliding with a wall, the final target of Robot is its own power source. It destroys itself and the house in a final blow.

The machine created to protect humans was engineered too well, a fear that has only become closer to reality in our modern age of militarized robotic drones. Though intended for peaceful purposes, Robot loses control after its owners are gone and only bits are left behind. The film closes with the poignant moment of the bird, unharmed, trying to fly into a peaceful scene on a video screen while one of Mrs. McClellan’s songs plays on the phonograph. Over the ending, Sarah Teasdale’s haunting poem is read.

This somber short and several more, including the light-hearted Contact (directed by Vladimir Tarasov), represent a wealth of animated films from the former Soviet Union that show the world through a lens that many of us who grew up in the West haven’t yet seen, but whose universal appeal carries the message past the boundaries of culture and language.

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