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  Inhabited Island Out in space with a smile on his face
Year: 2008
Director: Fyodor Bondarchuck
Stars: Vasily Stepanov, Yuliya Snigir, Pyotr Fyodorov, Sergey Garmash, Yuriy Kutsenko, Aleksey Serebryakov, Mikhail Evlanov, Andrey Merzlikin, Anna Mikhalkova, Maksim Sukhanov, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Yuriy Tsurilo, Kirill Pirogov, Evgeniy Sidikhin, Aleksey Gorbunov
Genre: Action, Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: In the year 2157, Maxim Kammerer (Vasily Stepanov), a young space pilot of the Free Search Group with near-superhuman abilities, crash lands on Saraksh, a hitherto uncharted planet governed by a brutal military dictatorship known as the Unknown Fathers. Captured by the military, Maxim befriends Gai (Pyotr Fyodorov), a corporal in the guards, after saving his life during a terrorist attack on a ballistic missile defense system. Instantly smitten with Gai's lovely sister, Rada (Yuliya Snigir), whose life he also saves, Maxim joins the guards in their battle against so-called "degenerates." But he soon questions their motives and grows puzzled by the mass outbreak of epileptic seizures that afflict half the population at 10:00 a.m and 10:00 p.m every day. It turns out the Unknown Fathers hide a sinister secret.

The most expensive science fiction film made in Russia, Inhabited Island was the second film from Fyodor Bondarchuk, son of celebrated actor-director Sergei Bondarchuk a man who was no stranger to budget-blasting epics himself having won an Academy Award for his version of War and Peace (1967) and lost a fortune with the Dino De Laurentiis production Waterloo (1970). Though the film was a solid hit, staggering production costs meant it only just made back its budget. In days gone by an adaptation of a science fiction novel as respected as Inhabited Island, penned by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, would have made for a solemn and cerebral art-house offering like Andrei Tarkovsky's genre classics Stalker (1979) and Solaris (1971). Many film critics in Russia saw the younger Bondarchuk as part of a brash, new generation of filmmakers whose overblown style was worryingly close to Hollywood hot-shots like Michael Bay and somewhat of a betrayal of the earnest social realist ethic of old. Consequently, Inhabited Island was heavily criticized for its bombastic visual style, direction that was hyperactive to the point of incoherence and supposedly ropey performances.

Impressive special effects, gorgeous production design, lush colours, and sweeping vistas combine to create a suitably grandiose epic. Big on spectacle, a tad shaky on plot coherence. One imagines the hectic narrative was intended to convey the same heady delirium and confusion felt by Maxim as he explores this strange, unfamiliar world. But while the big guy takes it all in his stride, viewers unfamiliar with the original novel will find themselves baffled as to who everyone is and what the heck is going on. Seasoned SF fans can at least latch on to elements familiar from Star Trek, Star Wars (1977), Dune (1984), The Fifth Element (1997) and Total Recall (1990) along with the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro but for the most part watching Inhabited Island is an experience more akin to being dropped onto an alien world than observing a narrative. As the first in a two-part saga the film bears the burden of establishing characters and setting several plot wheels in motion but Bondarchuk proves strangely cavalier with his screen time, dwelling unnecessarily on scenes involving eccentric supporting characters.

Nevertheless, the film remains consistently compelling, not just in terms of its outstanding visuals and dynamic action sequences but on a sub-textual level. Also in spite of naysayers among the Russian critics, the lead performers are quite engaging. Handsome Vasily Stepanov exudes undeniable star quality. Maxim is a charmingly old-fashioned hero of a sort more commonly found in vintage, pre-Seventies science fiction films. Always smiling, rugged, chivalrous to a fault and defiantly idealistic, he combines brains and brawn, instantly willing to lend a helping hand to total strangers right from the moment he falls from the sky. Differing from Russian space sagas of the past, in this instance the hero is an individualist who speaks his own mind while the enemy is an oppressive totalitarian regime armed with a machine that literally controls the masses. Inevitably, Maxim ends up joining the rebels. It is a well-worn story but one that never gets old and no doubt held mass appeal in Russia. The film ends on a cliff-hanger taken up by Inhabited Island Part Two: Skirmish (2009).

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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