For the first few minutes of Fyodor Bondarchuk’s Inhabited Island, I thought I might soon be forced to lament the loss of a perfectly good cinema ticket at Shopogolik (Confessions of a Shopaholic) next door. The film opened like a sophomore comm-arts class project heavily inspired by the remake of Lost in Space: Golden-locked Maxim (Vasiliy Stepanov) is promising his mom, via videophone, that he’ll start studying for exams soon when his spaceship hits a meteor storm and crash-lands on a strange planet. Maxim, of course, immediately hops out to strut about in the foreign atmosphere, and just in the nick of time, as his spaceship explodes behind him.
But on the strength of its first part alone (the second part comes out in April), I’m willing to say Inhabited Island is actually an excellent film. Depending on the performance of the second half, it will go down in history as either the Russian Star Wars – a groundbreaking science-fiction smash able to engage almost any audience – or the Russian Starship Troopers, a dumb flick beloved for its imaginative yet mindless fun.
The film follows Maxim, a jet-setting teen of the year 2157, as he begins constructing a new life on this alien planet there without even a backward glance. Indeed, the whole “E.T. phone home” theme is completely missing from Inhabited Island, and Maxim for this reason is not an entirely believable character. Stepanov doesn’t try to persuade us otherwise, employing an acting style in the Tom Cruise model; he walks, he talks, he looks good kicking ass. Nothing close to an Oscar, but it works.
Maxim leaves the ruins of his ship behind and hops a caravan to the nearest space-age metropolis, befriending his guard, Gai (Pyotr Fyodorov), along the way. After losing himself in the city, he turns his intent gaze and monosyllable charms on an especially becoming waitress, who turns out to be none other than Gai’s sister Rada (Yulia Snigir).
Our hero makes himself at home, trading on the currency of his ever-present dumb grin, and joins Gai in the army. Little does he know there are sinister powers at work in the form of a ruthless authoritarian government that controls the minds of the citizenry through a network of brainwave towers. Two powerful magnates of the ruling circle – “Strannik” (“Strange One,” Aleksei Serebryakov) and “Umnik” (“Smart One,” played by director Bondarchuk) – take an all-too-keen interest in Maxim, even as our hero barges ahead in unveiling the darker truths of the society, as well as his own secret powers.
Granted, after such a summation, Inhabited Island hardly seems like the Slavic answer to Star Wars. And indeed, the reception among Russian moviegoers has been lukewarm, from what I can tell. My literature professor found the film too fast-paced, with typical popcorn-flick overemphasis on special effects and action. My friend Anton, on the other hand, was left hankering for more action, and hopes the second part will be more dynamic in this area, as well as in character development. Oh, and another criteria is that Maxim stops smiling so much. I mean, that’s just not Russian.
“If the second part is like the first, I’ll say, ‘I’m an idiot for going to the movie theatre,’” Anton mused. But whereas he would have considered the first part a disappointment if it had been an American production, he admitted the flick was especially ambitious for a Russian film, and for that reason better than expected.
Whatever the criteria for judging may be, Inhabited Island brings a rare, dreamy creativity to the Russian screen. Bondarchuk’s adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel of the same name conjures up a detailed tapestry of characters and imagined culture a la Frank Herbert’s Dune, although the prolific use of minor deus-ex-machinas to move things along renders the Strugatskys’ plot pale in comparison to Herbert’s. The near-childlike sense of wonder and excitement as Maxim wonders the lively markets and urban slums (there’s the Russian cultural background popping up) of the giant city, or the elaborate dress and rituals of the palaces where the perpetual games of power play out, invokes the kind of fun, richly textured backdrop displayed by the Star Wars scenes at the Tattooine cantina and Jabba’s palace. And there’s no crude marketing devices like Ewoks or Jar-Jar Binks to ruin the sense of majesty: As the Russians would say, “Glory to God,” or “slava boga!”
Equally tongue-in-cheek is the film’s social message, which, at least for a hopelessly nostalgic Slavicist like myself, calls to mind the noble Russian tradition of political commentary through art. Unlike the vague specter of the Empire in Star Wars, the Dark Side in Inhabited Island parallels several historical and contemporary trends.
On the historical side, the magnates wield the state’s iron hand to modernize their empire, even while infighting amongst themselves, performing subterfuge by friendly letters or taking a gun to someone’s head to prove their loyalty to the supreme leader: In other words, a sci-fi mock-up of Stalin’s regime and modernization campaign. At the same time, raids against “enemies of the state,” dogmatic interrogation tribunals and political prisoners exiled to the far reaches of the empire invoke the systematic terror and prison camps described in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.
On the modern side, it surely no coincidence that a main function of the mind-control towers is to remove critical appraisement of the propaganda put out by the television news. As in Russia today, TV serves as the main source of information on the Inhabited Island, even though it is controlled by the state. And the restless Southern borderlands could even be taken in reference to Russia’s tumultuous Caucasus region, although this will be explored more in the second part.
All in all, a worthy effort from the son of famous Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk, who did a masterful film interpretation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. And even if it doesn’t prove to be the Russian Star Wars, it has at lost brought a great made-up word into the popular lexicon, ingenious in its simplicity: “Massaraksh!,” which is just as delightful in its pronunciation as in its meaning, “The world is inside out!,” and can be used positively or negatively.
For the full verdict, I’ll wait on the second part. But for now, I have one word for the film’s impact on Russian cinema: “Massaraksh!”