Monday, May 28, 2012

Sci-Fried Theater: THE INHABITED ISLAND (2008/2009)

Like a good western, good science fiction should be rife with allegories and metaphors, transcending the basic standards of the genre, but providing visceral entertainment at the same time. In other words, it should deliver the thrills, but also subtly explore some intellectual themes. In the realm of science fiction literature, brothers Boris and Arkadiy Strugatskiy are undisputed masters of their craft. Like other science fiction masters, say Philip K. Dick, the adaptations of their thought-provoking works of alternate realities run the gamut from the stunning to the silly, but the beauty of their works is that no matter how silly the adaptation, they are always compelling in some way due to the brilliance of the source material.

Set in the year 2157, Earth has evolved to be peaceful, prosperous and healthy. So healthy in fact that everybody is genetically superior; physically beautiful, strong, and err, bullet proof. Humans heal so quickly that unless they are shot in the head, they are essentially unkillable by firearms. Damn, Leatherface would have a field day in this new era. One van of teenagers would last him for months!

Prettyboy Earth dude Maxim (Vasiliy Stepanov) accidentally crashes his intergalactic graduation present on a desert planet and after running into some wolf-ape creatures is captured by a filthy nomad, Zef (Sergey Garmash), and handed over to a military camp in exchange for a can of meat. The military camp is an outpost for a country that is perpetually at war and uses sonic towers to transmit a mind control energy wave at specific hours of the day that causes the mass public to fervently praise their totalitarian leaders. More importantly, it causes painful epileptic seizures in a small minority who are labeled degenerates and traitors and are then tortured, executed, or forced into military service for cannon fodder. The catch is that the ruling elite, a cloistered group of section heads called The Unknown Fathers, are actually degenerates themselves. While they live in luxury, plotting wars and engaging in personal politics, the people live in tiny little apartments watching television programming that is a transmission of the imaginings of insane minds. At one point Maxim is floated in a bacta tank - err, I mean some sort of amniotic fluid filled glass container, and his brain recordings are of a giant lizard attacking some biohazard suited guys that look like they escaped from a Bruno Mattei film.

When Maxim is being hauled in a prison transport back to the city, one of the transmission towers is attacked, pinning one of the guards, Guy (Pyotr Fyodorov). Maxim saves him and is given his new name, Mak Sim, when Guy loses something in translation. The Unknown Fathers realize that this tall, grinning savage who appears to be perfect for a part in POINT BREAK 2, has untapped potential as a pawn in their never-ending war games. Mak finally has enough of this, breaks out and saves the virtue of a cute waitress, Rada (Yuliya Snigir), from what appears to be an escapee from a Tim Burton set. The back alley fight between Mak and a gang that has seemingly modeled themselves after rejected Mortal Kombat fighters is the movie's first and biggest stumbling block. Rehashed MATRIX-lite fight scenes that we've seen done a million times since 1999 and that, quite frankly, causes the enthusiasm level to drop faster than a Facebook share.

As it turns out Rada is coincidentally Guy's sister and this allows for some bonding that leads to Guy talking Mak into joining the military where he gets an inside view of the cruelty of the Fathers. After refusign to execute the "dissidents" who include resistance fighter Zef, Mak is left for dead. Of course since he can't be killed by body shots, he uses this presumption of death as cover to try to organize a rebellion with the grudging help of Guy, who still is reasonably certain that everything is fine and there is nothing to see here.

Yuliya Snigir's talents laid bare

Got all that? My favorite synopsis was from a guy on a message board who said that the film was "a Russian PITCH BLACK". Whaaaaa?? I think that is the one sci-fi film it doesn't borrow from, but more on that later. Spread out over two installments, the first feature runs close to two hours and is essentially the first two acts, leaving the final film to be a massive 80 minute third act, which means the second film is almost wall to wall action. Even with over three hours of running time, this film is clearly trying to pack in way too much of the book to make a coherent film with the time alloted. I understand the epic scope that the filmmakers were going for, but it actually may have played better cut down to a two and a half hour single movie, or if you are going to do two movies, flesh it out to two full 120 minute films. When epic works are pared down for cinematic adaptation the screenwriter is going to have to pick and choose what is important to the telling of the story and what can be omitted. Here, it feels like a shotgun approach with scenes popping up that feel completely unconnected to the story, as if the screenwriters had favorite bits that they didn't want to cut and just sort of stuffed them in edgewise.

For example: While trying to figure out how he's going to get his revolution in gear, Mak asks Guy if he believes in The White Submarine. Mak says he believes it exists and he will find it. Why? Not a clue. What for? No idea either. They stumble across the (presumably) legendary white sub without much effort and while Guy freaks out (as usual) about it being contaminated and "weird", Mak goes inside to explore. He finds a working radio, what appears to be human experiments and a bridge that has monitors running war atrocity footage. They then leave the sub and get back to their main objective. I get the point of the scene (I think), that soldiers are conditioned for war, but this point is made many, many times through the film already and it doesn't seem to serve much purpose in the film. It's cool, but I would guess that it was probably much more integral and made a lot more sense in the book. Another bit shows that Mak can lay his hands on the degenerates, stopping the seizures. This is a quick bit that, again, I'm sure had much more relevance in the book. Purists may disagree, but it could have been left out entirely and made for a less cluttered film that could have been a good, solid 2.5 hours.

Directed by the son of famous, award-winning film director Sergey Bondarchuk, Fedor Bondarchuk starterd his directorial career with the big-budget, highly controversial 2005 Afganistan war movie 9TH COMPANY. While I haven't seen the film, it was considered controversial due to it being rather Oliver Stone-ish and glossing over facts from the Russian invasion in the '80s, and cranking up the drama quotient. THE INHABITED ISLAND also has similar issues. It reminds me a bit of Schwarzenegger's TOTAL RECALL (1990), it's a great story slathered in molten velveeta.

Turning Point: The Fall of Good Gaming
The city itself is a fully realized world, layered with detail that verges on BLADE RUNNER-esque. It's all pretty impressive looking, but somehow has a sense of sameness. The city is a bit like METROPOLIS (1927), BRAZIL (1985) and that disappointing video game TURNING POINT: FALL OF LIBERTY (2008) which envisioned the Nazi's occupying America in big Nazi blimps (sorry, airships). Nothing evokes BRAZIL quite like the interrogation sequence where Zev is encased in a body suit that is then pumped full of scalding steam. Some of the steam-punk design not only echoes BRAZIL, but feels a bit like CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995) as well. The baroque quarters and formal dress of the ruling class are simply stunningly detailed, but are somehow reminiscent of DUNE (1984). There's a car chase that feels like it is lifted right out of TOTAL RECALL (1990), a character who looks like THE FIFTH ELEMENT's Zorg (Gary Oldman) created a mini-me, and so on. As richly visual as it is, if you've seen any science-fiction films from the past 30 years, chances are you will see something that will remind you of something else.

Boasting one of the largest budgets in recent Russian blockbuster history ($30 million), THE INHABITED ISLAND sets out, like previous Russian epics such as NIGHT WATCH (2004), to bring Russian cinema toe-to-toe with Hollywood. The cold war has turned into a cinematic rivalry, even if the US is blissfully unaware that anyone else is even trying to compete. Like the propaganda rhetoric of the old days, Russian film scholars proudly boast that they are beating the US at their own game. Unfortunately the reality of it is that in same year, 2008, we produced IRON MAN with state of the art CGI effects that make THE INHABITED ISLAND look like it was made in 1998. That is not to say that I am casually dismissing the technological achievements in the film, particularly with $30 million budget, which is a mere fraction of what it would have cost Hollywood to do the exact same thing. Nor am I dissing Russian pop-culture cinema. I really enjoyed D-DAY (2008), a massively entertaining almost scene-for-scene rip-off of Schwarzenegger's COMMANDO (1985), from 9TH COMPANY veteran, Mikhail Porechenkov. However, this perfectly illustrates the real issue with Slaviwood cinema...

Russian film scholars claim that American audiences just don't "get it". They claim that we think that the Russian soul is too foreign and strange, and this is why, even though they have special effects and action, that the films don't do well over here. I hate to break it too you, but that's just not true. Why do you think your arthouse films do well and your bubblegum films don't? Obviously your Russian soul isn't to blame, but more so the fact that we are really tired of seeing yet another fight scene badly pilfered from THE MATRIX. I loved the beginning of NIGHT WATCH, but you lost me completely when cars started driving on buildings and guys in sunglasses got into slo-mo, 360, superhuman martial arts fights, dodging fists and sliding backwards from super-punches. The Russian soul got a thick chocolately-flavored coating and a crunchy candy shell. The center is complex and intriguing, but the outside tastes like cheap crap that can be had better elsewhere. The sad thing is that if they dumped the carbon copy mentality, I believe they would be producing some of the world's finest genre cinema and Hollywood would be beating down their doors for the remake rights. Ironic, nyet?

While Bondarchuk may be spending too much time stealing ideas from Hollywood films, as an actor, his turn as one of the two rivalling Fathers, Prokuror, is one of the really good things about this film. All of the Fathers play politics, but Prokuror and Strannik (Aleksey Serebryakov) are the only ones who realize the potential of controlling Mak Sim in their own way. While Strannik wants to dissect him, Prokuror wants to use him as a pawn in his own power play. In order to do that he has Rada arrested, and tries to play the good cop/good cop game to get her to allow him to "help" Mak. It's a great sequence that not only shows off Bondarchuk's skill as an actor, but Yuliya Snigir's as well, since in the rest of the film she really isn't given much to do other than be flirty or scared.

One of my favorite scenes in the film has Mak Sim visiting a sorcerer who lives in a bat cave for advice at the behest of the mutants. The dialogue that they have happens late in the film, but adds quite a bit of depth in context:

Sorcerer: "Your reason is clouded by conscience and you are unable to distinguish true good from imagined good. Your conscience is spoiled. Reason must subdue it, overcome it."

Mak: "Conscience gives us ideals, which reason seeks a means to achieve."

Sorcerer: "Means never fit in within ideals. Then the ideas must be widened or conscience narrowed."

To me this scene is a great example of the limited grasp I have of Russian philosophy, but don't try to wrap your head around it, because the conversation only makes sense once you reach the end of the movie and you get one of those moments of clarity when everything comes together and it makes the groan-inducing MATRIX crap a little easier to brush aside.

Now that I've said all that, you know what? I actually really enjoyed THE INHABITED ISLAND for what it is. It certainly is not even remotely on the level of STALKER (1979) or DEAD MOUNTAINEER'S HOTEL (1979), but then again I didn't really expect it to be. Because of its source, it has a lot more going on than most and while it often feels like the plot is a total clusterfuck and you will eventually want to slap the grin off of Maxim's mug, it's still an entertaining, richly detailed sci-fi film with a some genuinely great moments.

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