Sunday, 24 April 2011

Fedor Bondarchuk: Inhabited Island - Обитаемый Остров (2008)

Director:Fyodor Bondarchuk
Writers:Arkadiy Strugatskiy (original book), Boris Strugatskiy (original book),
Stars:Vasiliy Stepanov, Yuliya Snigir, Pyotr Fyodorov
Official site here.

Fedor Bondarchuk’s two-part film The Inhabited Island tackles three simultaneous challenges: the reinvention of a classic science fiction novel as a mainstream blockbuster, the convincing depiction of an imaginary planet; and the justification of an eyebrow-raising outlay of $40 million, quadruple the cost of Bondarchuk’s previous film The Ninth Company (Deviataia rota, 2005). While Russian audience figures leave a lot to be desired with box office grossing of $21 million for Part I and a meager $6 million for Part II (Box Office MOJO), Bondarchuk’s often minutely accurate recreation of Boris and Arkadii Strugatskii’s 1968 book (also The Inhabited Island) both fulfils and exceeds the original authors’ narrative. Like all film-makers approaching the Strugatskiis’ novels, Bondarchuk has first to grapple with Andrei Tarkovskii’s ghost: Solaris and Stalker have predisposed viewers to expect complex, reflective adaptations of science fiction. Although The Inhabited Island shares subject material with Tarkovskii’s films—including irradiated wastelands, mutants, mysterious weapons and divergent realities—Bondarchuk rejects Tarkovskii’s philosophical approach in favor of high-intensity action. Unlike Tarkovskii, Bondarchuk defiantly embraces technology, packing his film with futuristic vehicles, tanks, multi-megaton explosions and heavy-calibre guns. Stalker and Solaris create timeless dystopias: in The Inhabited Island, Bondarchuk drags the twenty-second century—the Strugatskii brothers’ ‘Noon World’ galaxy—kicking and screaming into the twenty-first.

The Inhabited Island opens in 2157 as Maksim Kammerer (Vasilii Stepanov), a footloose space-cruising youngster from an advanced galactic civilization, crash-lands his ship on an unknown planet, Saraksh. Saraksh—also the name of the continent and the nation where Maksim finds himself—is home to a very unusual civilization, whose inhabitants are convinced that they live on the inner surface of a vast sphere. This delusion is fostered by a peculiarity of their atmosphere which hides the stars and makes the horizon appear convex (ingeniously replicated by computer graphics). In recent history, a nuclear war between Saraksh and its nearest neighbors, Khonti and the Island Empire, has left huge tracts of land poisoned by radiation and entire populations, the so-called “mutants,” genetically damaged. From Saraksh’s capital, a council of anonymous leaders—the Unknown Fathers—exert dictatorial control over every aspect of civil life, aided by an elite army corps, the Guards, and a system of towers spread over the entire nation. The towers’ official function is to repel ballistic weapons; in reality, they blanket Saraksh in mind-bending radiation. For the huge majority of citizens, this radiation blocks their capacity for logical thought, suppressing resistance to the all-pervading government propaganda. For a tiny minority, the so-called “degenerates,” high doses of this radiation produce disabling agony. Twice a day, at fixed times, the towers broadcast the rays intensively, stimulating paroxysms of blind patriotism in the majority and—among the “degenerates”—unbearable pain.

On Saraksh, the blond, athletic, naively cheerful Maxim is immediately taken for either a lunatic or a mutant. His cheerful insistence that he comes from “up there,” “from Earth,” convince doctors that he must be irrevocably mad, since their cosmology excludes the existence of either space or stars. Tests reveal that Maksim, unlike Saraksh’s people, has no sensitivity whatsoever to the artificial radiation produced by the towers. Meanwhile, a mysterious individual called the Wanderer (Aleksei Serebriakov)—one of the Unknown Fathers—sends a minion, Fank, to collect Maxim from the testing centre. Fank (Andrei Merzlikin) exhibits an unintentionally comical, White Rabbit-like preoccupation with his watch throughout the film; this is because, as a “degenerate,” he dreads exposure in a public place during the radiation boosts. Unfortunately, due to a roadblock, this is exactly what occurs. To Maksim’s bewilderment, Fank suddenly collapses in agony on the driver’s seat, while baying citizens drag him out of the car. Soon lost in the crowd, Maksim wanders off to explore the city, and meets Rada Gaal (Iulia Snigir), the beautiful and sympathetic sister of Gai Gaal (Petr Fedorov), the soldier who originally brought him to the city. Gai, who has just been promoted into the Guards, Saraksh’s elite troops, welcomes the homeless stranger into their flat and even sponsors him to join the Guards. Maksim and Rada fall in love, while Gai and Maksim develop a strong mutual respect despite their diverging ethical—and astronomical—viewpoints. Maksim rejects the state’s representation of the “degenerates” as rebels and moral cripples, especially after he joins a Guards raid on a private flat and discovers that these so-called murderers and conspirators are simply intellectuals and ordinary professionals disenchanted with the regime. Unfortunately for Maksim’s Guards career, the sadistic Lieutenant Chachu (Mikhail Evlanov) takes a special interest in the new recruit’s development and sets him the Guards’ infamous “blood test” by commanding him to shoot a woman prisoner, a “degenerate” convicted for sedition. Maksim deliberately allows the woman to escape and resigns from the Guards, telling Gai to leave with him. Chachu responds by shooting Maksim four times at close range in the chest, leaving him for dead. ...

Reviewed by Muireann Maguire © 2009 in KinoKultura

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