In my review of the first part of “Inhabited Island,” I positively raved over the film (as did the living co-author of the series it’s based on, Boris Strugatsky), predicting a possible Russian answer to the original “Star Wars” trilogy.
No such luck. The second installment, “Inhabited Island: The Encounter” (“Obitaemiy Ostrov: Skhvatka”), falls flatter than an Ewok who just got crisped by an AT-ST Walker.
The main problem is that director Fyodor Bondarchuk (who also plays the role of the main antagonist Umnik) doesn’t have the time or initiative let this film find its own unique dynamic. With the original “Star Wars” trilogy, each film had its own distinctive feel: “A New Hope” was truly iconic as the introduction to the Star Wars universe and contained an element, like its title suggested, of hopeful rebellion, “The Empire Strikes Back” became a favorite of hardcore fans with its darker, ominous feel, and “The Return of the Jedi” brought everything to a head in an action-packed, plot-turning climax.
Whereas the first “Inhabited Island” mirrored “A New Hope,” the second fell far short of the kind of rousing finale “Jedi” achieved, leaving an impression of a brusque, made-for-the-SciFi-channel flick with entirely uninspiring action sequences. Bondarchuk should have split the film into two parts and followed the “Star Wars” mold exactly, with a darker middle section for contrast. Instead, he tries to cram everything into one film, giving such a rushed, schizophrenic presentation that his movie tests the limits of the viewer’s credulity and patience.
In this encounter, our hero Maksim (Vasiliy Stepanov) travels south to a borderland of mutants in order to enlist their help in his quest to bring down the regime of the Unknown Fathers, the circle of Stalinesque magnates who rule an empire based on a network of mind-control towers. Two of these magnates, “Umnik” (“Smart One,” played by Bondarchuk) and “Strannik” (“Strange One,” played by Aleksei Serebryakov), want to use Maksim, who as a physically engineered citizen of the advanced future civilization of earth wields special physical and mental powers, to achieve their own ends.
Maksim, however, motivated by the simple creed that people should be free, could care less about either of their intricate schemes. He travels on from the borderlands, getting conscripted into a war with a rival empire and learning more about the higher forces at work in the planet’s power structure, before he makes it back in time for a final confrontation with Umnik (a development accompanied by the film’s single major plot twist) that decides the fate of the empire.
In the rush to pack all this in, Bondarchuk misses every opportunity to build chemistry between Maksim and Umnik, or, for that matter, between Umnik and Strannik. When the movie comes crashing to a close, the viewer is left without a strong sense of involvement with any of the characters.
For most of the movie, any tension or sense of dynamics is centered around bosom friends Maksim and Gai (Pyotr Fyodorov), which also fails due to the rather simplistic take on what is in essence a complicated, conflicted relationship. Gai wrestles his brainwashed reflexes like they’re a bad cold, lacking the kind of deep, ambiguous psychological conflict displayed by other such Raskolnikov-style characters (Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” comes to mind).
Meanwhile, Maksim is lollygagging along without a care besides saving the world, while Gai whines and nags him in a strained, manly yelp. In this manner, the film jumps schizophrenically from scene to scene, relying heavily on a series of deus ex machinas even more egregious than those in the first part: “Oh, here’s a giant working rocket ship they kept hidden in these stone ruins all these years” or “Oh, here’s an abandoned White Submarine like the one we’ve been looking for, with a man-sized hole blown in the side right next to the ladder.”
Likewise, the movie is chock full of characters who decide to stick their necks out and help Maksim in the most unbelievable ways, all with no apparent motivation besides a late-blooming sense of benevolence or personal ambition so misguided it is hardly realistic. The ultimate such example is when Strannik decides to literally hands Maksim the keys to the empire and then expects him to play nice and do as he’s told.
Although the final plot twist is compelling and intriguing, the combat scene between Maksim and Umnik is pathetic, paling next to the tension-filled atmosphere and appropriately epic setting of the final scene in “The Return of the Jedi.”
Of course, it’s obvious after the second part that there’s no comparing the two series. “Inhabited Island” is a fun flick that quickly fades due to its rushed feel and missed opportunities for the drama and tension that should accompany such an epic.