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Posts Tagged ‘Ooh those Russians!’

I have commented a couple of times in the past on the tendency of Soviet-era SF movies to go out of their way to clarify that they are not set in or particularly about the USSR itself, presumably because they don’t want to appear to be criticising the state, even implicitly. This is not the case with Vasili Zhuravlov’s Cosmic Voyage, for the whole point of the film is to anticipate the coming triumphs of the Soviet people in the realm of space travel. There is a mild irony in the fact that, despite this, the film managed to get itself withdrawn from general release after a very short period of time and went almost totally unseen for decades. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess.

Cosmic Voyage originally appeared under the title Космический рейс (Kosmicheski Reis), in 1936, and the first thing you notice about it is that this is a silent movie, a form which obviously endured longer in the USSR than it did in western cinema. A caption informs us that the events depicted occurred (or will occur) in the year 1946, and you are struck again by the fact that no-one in the mid 30s seems to have had any inkling of the horrors to come in the next decade. Certainly the cityscape depicted in the opening moments of the film, which inevitably feels somewhat indebted to Lang’s Metropolis, shows no signs of the ravages of the Great Patriotic War – it is the stuff of a utopia, its most distinctive feature being what looks like an immense bridge. Or is it a bridge? Well, no, unless you consider it a bridge to the stars: it is the launch track for a rocket-plane. (This method of launching has since been discredited, but it continued to feature in western SF well into the 1950s – see When Worlds Collide and Fireball XL5 – so it’s not as if it was absurd to feature it here.)

The rocket-plane in question is the USSR-1, which has recently been completed. This being the case, it transpires that a senior scientist, Professor Sedych (Sergei Komarov), has decided he’s going to use it to go to the Moon, without bothering to check with his superiors. As a result, dashing young officer Viktor (Nikolai Feoktistov) is ordered to find Sedych and restrain him. Viktor’s sweetheart Marina (Ksenia Moskalenko) doesn’t know what to make of this, mainly because she is Sedych’s assistant. Viktor’s little brother Andrei (Vassili Gaponenko) is also not impressed – Andrei is clearly intended to be loveably boisterous and energetic young lad, but he inevitably comes across as a pain in the neck.

Well, they find Sedych and he is dragged before his boss, Karin (Vasili Kovrigin), who informs him he is mad for wanting to go to the Moon, as he won’t survive the stresses of the journey. Sedych demands to see evidence of this, and so Karin produces various dead rabbits which have been used as guinea pigs (if you see what I mean) in other space test flights. Sedych makes the reasonable point that he is not a rabbit, but Karin is implacable, and insists that they proceed with animal testing – a pussycat is duly rocketed off into the void. Sedych is not impressed by this and proposes to Viktor that they go to the Moon without official permission.

Various scenes ensue of the preparations for the unauthorised launch; Andrei recruits the local chapter of the Young Communist League (not named as such on screen, but it’s obviously something along those lines) to run interference for them, and there are many scenes of the characters packing their suitcases ahead of the flight. Mrs Sedych is worried that the Moon will be cold, and is determined that her husband will have a good supply of warm socks as well as ties and so forth (the Prof would rather take a lot of heavy scientific textbooks). As you can see, there is something more than a little credulity-straining about these moments of broad comedy, but at least they keep the film rattling along.

Eventually it is time for launch, and Viktor reveals his true colours as stooge for Karin, who is determined to stop the flight. For this lack of moral and intellectual courage, and quite contrary to what you would expect from a western film with a similar theme, the square-jawed young romantic lead is not allowed to go to the Moon, and when the rocket-plane takes off, the crew consists of an old man, a young woman, and a boy. ‘Forward into Space!’ cries Sedych. ‘Long live youth!’ It is genuinely stirring stuff, even eight decades later.

Even sound movies from the 1930s and 40s seem a little weird to the modern viewer, and so it is not really surprising that Cosmic Voyage is no exception to this – this is a silent movie, and the product of a rather different culture than that responsible for most of the films we know today. And yet, in many ways it does feel rather familiar, and certainly part of a tradition of early space films that were able to generate the gosh-wow effect fuelling so much SF cinema simply by trying to predict the future as accurately as possible. It is true that Cosmic Voyage‘s rocket-planes are distinctly reminiscent of Flash Gordon’s spaceship from one of the Universal serials, but this is a film really trying hard to get the science right, as far as it was known at the time: the co-writer on the script was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the founders of rocketry, although he died before the film was released. The cosmonauts immerse themselves in tanks of liquid to protect them from the stresses of take-off, while there is another sequence which depicts them discovering the delights of life in zero gravity – obviously, 2001 it ain’t, but it’s still surprisingly well done. The same can certainly be said of some of the sequences depicting the visitors bounding across the lunar surface – the film-makers’ ideas of what the Moon would look like are a little wide of the mark, but the animation used is astonishingly good – so good, in fact, that one could almost be forgiven for assuming these are modern interpolations made using 21st century techniques to achieve a somewhat retro effect.

It is a little bemusing, therefore, that these sequences are the reason why the film vanished from sight after only a brief release and was not seen for many decades: apparently the USSR’s censors felt that this kind of special effects sequence was contrary to the principles of ‘socialist realism’ and pulled the movie as a result. If this is true, then I find it a little difficult to get my head round – is it solely because the sequence was animated, as opposed to using live actors like the rest of the film? This seems a very odd distinction to be making, although it’s not as if Soviet society in the 1930s wasn’t noted for its arbitrariness in many respects.

Still, at least the film is available again now, and it is a very watchable one with a definite charm to it. The political and allegorical subtexts of the film are obvious, and occasionally surprising – the emphasis on everyone having something to contribute, even the old and the very young, seems like solid Soviet stuff, but there is an unexpectedly anti-establishment note to the proceedings, as Sedych and his comrades defy the over-cautious powers that be in the name of science and adventure. Oh well- one of the reasons I watch these old and obscure films is to be surprised, and I suppose it’s only natural that some of these surprises should be more surprising than others.

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As I have suggested before, most western viewers’ exposure to Russian SF cinema is limited to the considerable but imposing films of Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically Solaris and Stalker. This is obviously far from ideal, not least because Tarkovsky himself was no fan of genre as a concept, and the fact that Solaris contained so many conventions of the SF genre meant that it was his least favourite of his own films. Stalker, certainly, shuffles backwards into the SF genre, ending up there because it resembles anything else even less. Russian SF movies did not begin and end with Andrei Tarkovsky – so what do some of the others look like?

Marek Piestrak’s The Inquest of Pilot Pirx was released in 1979, the same year as Stalker, and features one of the actors from that film; it also shares a sort of connection with Solaris, as both films are based on stories by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (I should mention that while this is a Soviet film, it is technically a Polish-Russian co-production). One should always be wary of speculating based on too little evidence, but one wonders if the late 70s SF boom extended behind the iron curtain?

Certainly much of Inquest suggests that its makers were aware of what was going on in western SF films. It opens in what looks like some kind of laboratory, with technicians in ‘clean’ suits working on what look very much like parts of human-like robots – androids, in other words. We are clearly in the same kind of narrative territory as Westworld, although the film (like many others) seems a bit unclear about the nature of its synthetic humans – on the one hand, we are told that the androids are so similar to people that only detailed medical tests can identify them; on the other, it is suggested that if you cut one of them open bits of wire and plastic fall out.

Perhaps the first big surprise of the film comes when it is revealed that the android construction facility is in the United States (or so it is heavily suggested), although everybody still speaks Russian there (in the same way that Russian characters in Bond films speak English to each other). Given SF often functions as a critical or satiric commentary on the society that produced it, one wonders if the authorities insisted that the USSR not be featured in the film? (Another possible parallel with Stalker, which had dialogue added to it to make it clear the film was not set in Russia.) We see a meeting between the android construction company and people from the UN, discussing a new space mission – the title character, Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitsky) is chosen, mainly for his good moral character, although the android makers are not very happy about this.

Soon enough Pirx meets up with someone from UNESCO who explains the job they want him to do: androids (‘non-linears’ in the film’s parlance) are on the verge of going into mass production, and could potentially have a major impact on society. However, before this can happen, the authorities are going to have a little test – there will be a mission to Jupiter, with the ship crewed by a mixture of humans and androids, to see which perform better under the stresses of the flight. The twist is that Pirx will not be told which of his men is organic and which is not, and they are under orders not to tell him. Which could prove awkward, if one of the androids should turn out to be mad and decide to try and kill all the human crew…

This is not an especially long film and one of the problems with it is that the first half of it is resolutely earthbound, taking place in a variety of offices, factories, streets – there’s even a glimpse of a branch of McDonalds. This is fairly drab stuff, it must be said, only marginally recognisable as SF, and the pace of it is leisurely, to say the least. Much of it concerns a cack-handed attempt by the android builders to assassinate Pirx so he can be replaced by someone more sympathetic to their agenda: this is pure filler, not informing the second half of the film at all.

The second half of Inquest is at least easily obviously a science fiction film, as Pirx and his crew set off into deep space to carry out their mission. Again, parallels with western SF are almost inescapable – we are in the same kind of territory as Alien and Blade Runner (although, given the rather primitive special effects and model-work, some people may be more reminded of Blake’s 7). It soon becomes apparent that someone on the ship is up to no good and planning the failure of the mission, although who it is remains a mystery (the film achieves this through the somewhat awkward expedient of having the traitor shuffle around with his back to the camera so his face cannot be seen). Pirx, rather in defiance of his orders, sets out to figure out who is who, or more accurately what, amongst his crew – some of whom, such as ship’s doctor Nowak (Alexander Kaidanovsky, the stalker himself), and pilot Calder (Zbigniew Lesien), happily inform him without needing much pressing – but can they be trusted to tell the truth?

Much potential here for tension and paranoia, of course, along with all the jeopardy of a deep-space mission, but unfortunately it mostly goes unrealised. There are many dour discussions about what’s going on, along with some abstract talk about the nature of what it means to be human (or an android) – at one point it seems like Pirx has reached the conclusion that all androids will necessarily be atheists, and starts asking members of the crew what their religious beliefs are. The conclusion, one of the few things recognisably derived from the original Lem story, is that the main difference between man and machine is that man is fallible, but that fallibility itself can be a virtue under some circumstances. It’s an interesting idea, but the problem with Inquest is that it fails to dramatise it in a consistently engaging way. Too much of this film is slow and talky, with a meandering and underpowered story.

Much of The Inquest of Pilot Pirx is heavy-going, unengaging stuff. It makes an interesting contrast to the more lightweight SF action-adventure films being made in Europe and America at around the same time, and it curious to see the parallels in how it handles the same kind of material and ideas. But as a film in its own right, it’s hard to get particularly excited about: it has a certain novelty value, obviously, but not much more.

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My good friend and occasional presence on the blog, Olinka, is keen to hang onto her Russian identity as far as possible, trying to speak the language and enjoy her culture whenever she can. Although Russian is one of my languages (just about), I haven’t seen that many films made in it, which she seemed vaguely disappointed by when I mentioned that Mirror was one of the few Soviet-era movies I’d watched.

Perhaps as a result, a few weeks later she dropped me a line telling me about a new website she’d found hosting a large number of Russian-language films for streaming. ‘You should watch сталкер,’ she said.

‘You what?’

‘They have сталкер on the site. We were talking about it the other week.’

‘I don’t even know how you’re pronouncing that. Stop talking in Cyrillic, please.’

‘Oh, all right. They have Stalker. You know, the Tarkovsky film.’

This was of some interest to me, because I have been aware for some time of the fact that the USSR produced a number of noteworthy science fiction films. SF is, as you will be aware if you come here regularly, one of my few genuine passions, and this did feel like a real gap in my experience. I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, of course, but then that’s not a particular achievement as it’s one of the very few Soviet SF films to have any kind of profile in the west. One of the others, as you may have gathered, is Stalker, likewise made by Tarkovsky a few years later (1979, to be exact). I remember the first time it was shown on British TV, nearly ten years later – in the middle of the night, pretty much, with a somewhat ambivalent write-up in the TV listings – ‘Either a cryptic SF parable or three men mucking about on some waste ground for two and a half hours, you decide,’ was about the gist of it.

Certainly, Stalker does not resemble the kind of SF film routinely being made in the west at the tail end of the 1970s. Freely adapted by the Strugatsky brothers from their own novel Roadside Picnic, the film is set at some point in the future, in an unspecified nation – probably not Russia, given one of the characters refers to it as a ‘small nation’. This kind of detail is not really important anyway. Soon we meet the protagonist, the stalker of the title (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who lives in fairly primitive circumstances, and not especially happily, with his wife (Alisa Friendlich) and child. He is about to embark on a dangerous and illegal undertaking, not for the first time, and she is not exactly happy. But he is insistent, for reasons which are not immediately apparent.

His clients are likewise left nameless: they are a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a scientist (Nikolai Grinko). The stalker is to lead them into the Zone, a quarantined area kept under military guard. Years earlier, a meteorite (or something else from deep space…) fell in this region, ever since which it has been sealed off and uninhabited. The story goes that somewhere in the Zone is a room containing some agency which grants the deepest desires of anyone entering it, and the stalker has been paid to take the writer and the scientist to this place…

The early sequences of Stalker are (perhaps intentionally) misleading – long, slow scenes of the stalker getting out of bed and quarrelling with his wife, before talking to the others. Tarkovsky reportedly said he wanted the opening of the film to be even slower and duller so that ‘people who walked into the wrong theatre’ had plenty of time to leave before the film properly got going (inasmuch as Stalker ever gets going, as it is traditionally understood). That said, these scenes are followed by the trio penetrating the security around the Zone, dodging armed guards and other security measures, and for a moment it almost seems like the film is going to be conventional.

But of course it isn’t. Entry into the Zone provides one moment of profound cinematic shock, as the toxic sepia of the opening scenes is replaced by beautiful, natural colour, and also marks the film adopting the mode it will maintain for most of the rest of its duration: the three men travelling through the Zone towards the room, looking at the landscape around them while discussing where they are and their reasons for being there.

As you can probably tell, this is another of those SF films which doesn’t really resemble SF for the vast majority of its length: particularly to a viewer who has come to primarily associate SF with films in the action-adventure idiom. There is not much action-adventure here, no laser guns, no spaceships, no robots or aliens – the alien influences of the Zone are left unseen, perceived only by the stalker. Until the closing moments of the film, I was half-expecting this to function wholly as a kind of psychological study of the stalker’s fractured mind, with the curious properties of the Zone a figment of his imagination. But it seems not: there is something strange at the heart of the Zone, the question being what this anomaly is.

As has been said so often that it has practically become a truism, SF films do not exist to predict the future, but more to comment on the present. Nevertheless, films do occasionally come along which feel almost eerie in their prescience: for instance, there’s Starship Troopers, which is one of the best commentaries of the aftermath of September 11th 2001 ever made, even though it was produced in 1996. And there’s a sense in which Stalker feels inextricably connected to the Chernobyl disaster, even though it preceded those events by six or seven years. The Zone of the film has the feeling of a post-industrial, post-apocalyptic waste, for all that its colours are more natural than those of the wider world. Detritus of modern society is everywhere – syringes are particularly prominent – although there are signs of nature reclaiming the area. It is perhaps worth mentioning that many people have suggested that Stalker was in fact filmed on a dumping ground for chemical waste, and that this was a contributing factor in Tarkovsky’s own premature death; worth mentioning, too, that guides who lead visitors into the real-life exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor refer to themselves as stalkers.

There is something profoundly bleak and dismal about the Zone in the film, although quite what it represents is left as ambiguous as much of the rest of Stalker. That the film is intended to be symbolic is established early on, with the switch from sepia to full colour and the fact that none of the characters are named. The writer is hoping the room will give him inspiration, while the scientist is hoping that understanding the room and the Zone will bring him acclaim and respect from his peers (or so he initially claims, anyway). Or, as some have suggested, the two characters represent the artistic and the scientific perspectives on life, neither of which proves fully compatible with the reality of the Zone. What, then of the stalker himself?

It seems to me that this is ultimately a film about spirituality and faith, which is a very audacious choice of theme for a Soviet film and may explain why Stalker is quite as oblique as it is. The others have to place their faith in the stalker, who himself seems to have an almost religious devotion to the room and what it represents: hope, perhaps, an escape from the material squalor of the world. Only those who have suffered can truly appreciate the room, he suggests, while those approaching it with impure motives will be punished. It’s not even as if this interpretation of the film is buried particularly deeply: one poster for the film features a moment where one of the characters affects to wear a crown of thorns.

In the end, though, for all that not very much happens compared to more conventional films, Stalker is so dense in terms of its dialogue, themes and philosophy that it’s entirely possible there are other interpretations with greater validity. It is not the kind of film you can watch once and then move on from – ‘remember, when you watch Stalker, Stalker also watches you,’ was Olinka’s final word on the film, indicating a Tarkovsky-ish talent for suggestive obliqueness. Possibly the clues are all there in the closing scenes of the film, which are strikingly different in style – one character makes a lengthy, casual speech to the camera, there is a sudden display of superhuman faculties from a relatively minor character described as a  ‘Zone mutant’. This is a film to be absorbed and reflected upon rather than watched in the conventional sense. Like the Zone, it resolutely keeps its secrets and demands a leap of faith from those who would approach it. Whether Stalker sufficiently rewards the experience of attempting to decipher it is probably up to the individual viewer, but it is a striking, unforgettable experience nevertheless.

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As I sit down to contemplate Donovan Marsh’s Hunter Killer, I am minded to suggest a new rule of thumb for when it comes to predicting whether a film is any good or not. I already have a few of these: is the director so obscure he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry? This is a bad sign. Does the film star Gerard Butler? This is a worse one. (Needless to say, Hunter Killer fails both of these tests, by which I mean the answer is yes.) To these I would add: does the film have more producers and executive producers than it does cleaning ladies?

This is certainly the case with Hunter Killer, which – thanks to my close examination of the credits, a result of the film putting my lower limbs into a state of temporary torpor and briefly trapping me in the auditorium – I can inform you has over twenty producers and execs (including Gerard Butler, perhaps unsurprisingly), but less than a dozen women who clean. I will have to do further research into this area, but my initial findings are that you should hire cleaners in bulk rather than film producers, should you have the option.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Hunter Killer is about as good a movie as you would expect, given it is a mid-budget action thriller starring Butler as the ostensible hero. I was something of a cheerleader for Butler and his career up until about fifteen years ago, and was genuinely pleased when 300 catapulted him to a level of real stardom – but since then it seems like he hasn’t really been trying, just recycling the same kinds of movies and performances over and over again. I’m almost at the point of giving up on him entirely, but I do enjoy a slightly duff genre movie, so along I went to a matinee of Hunter Killer (at which I was entirely alone, I might add).

Things kick off with an American and a Russian submarine both going missing in mysterious circumstances, somewhere under the polar ice. The chairman of the joint chiefs, who is a growly cipher expertly phoned in by Gary Oldman, dispatches another sub to investigate, under the command of newly-promoted captain Joe Glass (Butler). Glass manages to be a fierce disciplinarian and an unpredictable loose cannon, whom we first meet displaying his macho chops by (illegally) hunting deer with a longbow in Scotland. He then gets to show his sensitive side by not actually shooting the cute little critters, before being whisked off to take command of his boat. Here he displays yet another aspect of his personality, being much given to making rather cryptic inspirational speeches to his crew – ‘I am you,’ he announces to the assembled company, then ‘Everyone you know is someone on that [missing] sub.’ Needless to say, Butler does not really manage to unite all these bizarrely arbitrary traits in a coherent characterisation.

Well, anyway, as the presumably somewhat-baffled crew sails into the danger zone it transpires that there is sneakiness afoot in the upper echelons of the Russian military establishment, with a coup in progress against the Russian President (Alexander Diachenko), orchestrated by the perfidious Defence Minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), who is looking to start a nuclear war with the USA for no particularly well-explained reason. However, with a US sub in the crisis zone, not to mention a special forces team (led by a somewhat unexpectedly-cast Toby Stephens), it may just be possible to save the day…

Yes, so this is not one of those films with what you could honestly describe as a stranglehold on reality. You almost wonder how long it has been in the works, given just how spectacularly misjudged its presentation of world geopolitics is – the US President is a woman, apparently named ‘Ilene Dover’ (which is a joke name, surely), who ends up ordering a rescue mission to save the Russian President (who has no tendencies to be photographed with his shirt off, in case you were wondering).

In other words it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a deeply silly film, bordering on the actually cartoonish in some places. The problem is that the makers of the film don’t appear to be particularly comfortable with making a silly cartoon of an action movie: they seem to want to make a serious and credible semi-political thriller. This desire mainly takes the form of everyone in Hunter Killer being under orders to play it absolutely straight even when the material demands at least a degree of tongue-in-cheekness. The result is regrettably predictable: when a silly film attempts to become credible by taking itself very seriously, the result is not a serious, credible film – the result is a film which manages to be both silly and rather dull.

I found myself rather missing the barking, sweating, swivel-eyed-maniac Gerard Butler of old: he’s just not that interesting when he tones it down, even if he is playing a weirdly stoical underwater nutcase at the time. On the other hand, hardly anyone makes much of an impression in this film – Gary Oldman expertly phones in his supporting turn, the rapperist Common appears as another nautical cove, and a cast-against-type Toby Stephens pops up as the leader of a US special forces unit (the movie was made in the UK, which explains the presence of a few familiar faces further down the cast list). It is, as you may have noticed, a somewhat blokey movie, with this slightly made up for by a supporting appearance by Linda Cardellini as an NSA analyst. (There are indeed some women serving on Butler’s sub, but none of them get any lines until the last twenty minutes of the film.) The late Michael Nyqvist makes one of his final appearances as a decent Russian sub captain, in a probably optimistic attempt to make it clear that not all Russians are bad guys.

That’s the thing about Hunter Killer – technically, it’s a perfectly competent movie in terms of its production and so on, but it just makes virtually no impact. There is never any real sense of danger or tension or involvement, probably because the film is just so derivative and formulaic and predictable. No doubt the film’s themes of the US military being wonderful and the deep connections felt by the brotherhood of submariners will appeal to some sectors of the intended audience, but I can’t see that translating into particularly wide appeal for anyone else. Even if you’re a really keen fan of films about submarines, Hunter Killer really has nothing new or especially accomplished to offer. But at least the sets are nice and clean.

 

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I have commented in the past on the dangers of giving your movie a punchy, catchy one-word title: other people may have the same idea, which can be terribly confusing. Twilight, Steel, Roadkill: all of these titles have been round the block a few times and have wildly different movies squabbling over possession of them.

Short titles can be equally problematic: just now I noticed that The Black Hole was on TV, but rather than the 1979 Gary Nelson stellar-conflict knock-off, it turned out to be a Ken Badish Z-movie with Kristy Swanson. In a similar vein, I wonder how many people are going to check into their favourite streaming site and decide to watch The Darkest Hour, comfortably settling down to enjoy an Oscar-winning turn from Gary Oldman, oblivious to the fact that they have actually made a fairly significant mistake?

Not that this is likely to long remain the case, for I cannot imagine anyone watching much of Chris Gorak’s 2011 movie The Darkest Hour and long remaining under the impression it is Joe Wright’s 2017 movie Darkest Hour. One of these films has an embattled Winston Churchill trying to keep the cause of liberty and freedom alive. The other features attractive young people being chased around Moscow by invisible monsters. A definite article can make a big difference sometimes.

These days it’s a little hard to imagine a US-Russian co-production quite as brazenly commercial as this one, but there you go, the past is another country. (As is Russia. Presumably the past of Russia is several different countries simultaneously, but I’ve no idea how that would work.) Prime mover behind this enterprise appears to have been Timur Bekmambetov, reigning nutcase behind such family favourites as Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the remake of Ben-Hur, and though someone else is left to do the actual directing, followers of the Bekmambetov oeuvre will know more or less what to expect.

Things get underway with aspiring young American entrepreneurs Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), who arrive in Moscow (everyone uses the American pronunciation, by the way) to try and find investors for their new website-stroke-app. But zounds! It turns out their perfidious Swedish business partner, Skyler – is this a common Swedish name? – has done the dirty on them and ripped off their idea. (The evil Swede is played by Joel Kinnaman, by the way.)

To drown their sorrows, Sean and Ben retire to a swanky nightclub where they meet feisty backpackers Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor). You know, I wasn’t aware that Moscow was such a hub on the international backpacking scene, but it just goes to show you. Even Skyler ends up in the same club, where he is as objectionable as earlier.

But then! Following a mysterious power failure, everyone stumbles out into the street to see strange aurorae appearing over Moscow, and swirls of glowing light raining down onto the city. It all looks very pretty, until it becomes apparent that the swirly light things are all people can perceive of vicious alien gits intent on invading the city and disintegrating everyone in their path. There’s only one thing for an appealing young ensemble cast to do at a time like this – hide in the cellar for a day and a night!

Making their rather cautious return to the streets 36 hours later, our heroes discover that Moscow is largely deserted, with everyone either having fled or been eaten by the invisible alien monsters. Everyone decides to go to the US embassy (even the Australian and Swedish characters), but what hope is there, with aliens still on the prowl and no apparent hope of escape…?

Anyway, The Darkest Hour is an example of the kind of middle-of-the-road genre movie which occasionally slips past me at a busy time of the year: I didn’t see it back when it came out, and can’t remember a particular reason why not. Must just have been occupied with other stuff – this is certainly the kind of film I can imagine me going to see, what with it being an alien invasion SF-horror movie and all. I may have been persuaded to knock it down my list of priorities by the notices it drew at the time, which ran a fairly negative gamut from tepid to eviscerating.

This is understandable, as – and perhaps you have been able to glean this from the customary synopsis – The Darkest Hour is unlikely ever to win any awards for its blazing originality, in any department. The capsule description of this movie – ‘the one with the invisible monsters in Moscow’ – also contains every distinctive feature that it possesses, with the possible exception of the fact that it scores unexpectedly high on the ‘on their way to very slightly better things’ department – Olivia Thirlby went on to appear in Dredd (in addition to some TV stuff), Rachael Taylor has carved out a tiny niche for herself sort-of playing Hellcat in the Marvel TV shows, Joel Kinnaman later found work in the Robocop remake and Suicide Squad, and so on.

B-movies are not what they used to be. It used to be the case that in a B-movie you were more or less guaranteed substandard, or (let’s be charitable) overambitious special effects, but you kept your fingers crossed that the film-makers would do their best to make up for this by using their imagination and wits when it came to the script, and the actors would likewise try to compensate for giving interesting performances. These days, however, thanks to the development of cheap high-end computers, the one thing you are pretty much guaranteed in even a low-budget movie is that it will have good-looking special effects. On the other hand, your chances of happening upon a script which does more than hit the minimum benchmarks are much lower nowadays, and the cast often seem to be deliberately trying to be as anonymous as possible.

So it is with The Darkest Hour. It has one slightly curious quirk – the moss-cow setting – and one potentially interesting feature – the invasion of invisible energy beings – and while the scenes in a devastated Moscow are predictably well-staged in visual terms, the film has little else to offer beyond a formulaic runaround. It’s not that difficult to work out who amongst the original five is not going to make it to the closing credits, and in which order they’re going to get zapped, but the thing is that you don’t really care either, so thinly characterised are they. Only Olivia Thirlby demonstrates she has genuine chops as an actress by genuinely making you worry about her survival.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that The Darkest Hour goes to all the trouble of being a Moscow-set SF movie, without including a single leading Russian character. It kind of reduces the setting to a painted backdrop, which I doubt was the intention of the Russian producers. I suppose you could argue that Gosha Kutsenko and Veronika Vernadskaya both appear in supporting roles and are very Russian indeed, almost to the point of stereotype, and that this makes up for a lot. Maybe.

In the end it doesn’t really make up for just how generic and forgettable The Darkest Hour is. Like a lot of movies at around this point in history, it was originally released in the odious 3D format, something which seems to have become slightly less common, but I doubt yet another gimmick would have helped its cause much. The thing about it is that this is one of those movies which doesn’t have a single element in it which you could genuinely call actively bad, but it’s so totally lacking in anything really distinctive and (apart from the effects and a single performance) actually accomplished that it simply fails to register in your head much. It’s not awful – being awful would actually make it more memorable. It just is, in that it exists – it just does very little more than that.

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I see from the (conspiracy of failing liberal – it says here) media that many people are concerned about the possibility of prominent American figures being unduly swayed by shadowy forces emanating from somewhere east of Europe. I don’t quite see what all the fuss is about, for this sort of thing has surely been going on for decades now. I offer as Exhibit A the 1975 movie Love and Death, in which Woody Allen’s brainspace has clearly been hacked by a number of well-known Russians.

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This even extends to abandoning his usual font and jazz-influenced score in favour of a different style of lettering and a soundtrack almost entirely drawn from the works of Sergei Prokoviev. Once the shock of this subsides we find ourselves in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. The noted soldier, poet, and abject coward Boris Grushenko (Allen) is awaiting execution, and passes the time by narrating the story of his life. It is a stirring tale of war, self-discovery, and all the other stuff you usually find in this sort of film. Boris’s unrequited love for his cousin Sonia endures despite her marriage to an elderly herring merchant, and the two of them are eventually married. However, with the French on the march, Sonia proposes the two of them engage in a daring exploit to save Russia…

Hmm. The thing about trying to write a synopsis of Love and Death is that simply describing the events of the story really doesn’t communicate the tone of the movie. The unwitting modern viewer, aware of Allen’s latter-day reputation as a cerebral misanthropist, might even be lulled into suspecting the director was genuinely attempting a pastiche of or homage to Tolstoy, Pasternak, Eisenstein, and various other serious artists.

Of course not. This is one of the Early, Funny Woody Allen movies, dating from the period when he was more likely to be parodying Ingmar Bergman than trying to imitate him. This isn’t quite the same kind of movie as his previous film, Sleeper, which is essentially a slapstick comedy – instead, it’s rather more like one of the Monty Python movies in that many of the jokes derive from inserting Allen’s modern sensibility into a period setting. Inevitably, this takes the form of an unstoppable stream of snappy one-liners – ‘Shall we say pistols at dawn?’ asks someone, challenging Boris to a duel. ‘Well, we can say it. I don’t what it means,’ comes the response. ‘You’re a coward!’/’Yes, but I’m a militant coward’, ‘Are you suggesting passive resistance?’/’No, I’m suggesting active fleeing’ – and many, many more.

As well as all this, though, there’s a running gag where virtually any conversation has a tendency to turn into a disquisition on moral philosophy, which arguably is an attempt at a genuine parody of Russian literature. However, the thing about dialogue like ‘judgement of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself’ (‘Yes, I’ve said that many times,’ is Allen’s response) is that for it to sound convincing, the writer has to know what he’s talking about – it’s a bit like Les Dawson’s bad piano playing, you have to know your stuff before you can start taking liberties with it. In the same way, there’s a scene in which Boris and his father converse at some length and the dialogue consists almost entirely of references to the works of Dostoyevsky. Sequences incorporate references to classic films like Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky, and The Seventh Seal. Much of what’s on screen is very silly and broad (and there are still a few of those slightly off-colour jokes which occasionally pop up in early Allen movies and are especially uncomfortable these days), but there’s also an assumption that this movie is being watched by an intelligent, educated audience – so, in some ways, very much like a Monty Python movie.

It’s an interesting movie – not, if you ask me, the funniest of the Early, Funnies but still an entertaining watch anyway. Allen’s next film was Annie Hall, which marked a real milestone in his development as a film-maker – a much more sophisticated and emotionally intelligent movie. There’s not much sign of that here, although Diane Keaton does get more scenes without Allen and more chance to develop a genuine character, and Allen’s willingness to display his erudition so openly does perhaps suggest someone becoming interested in moving beyond simply being a straightforward gag-merchant. Perhaps this is more of a transitional film than it first appears. If nothing else, it suggests that Russian influence on a famous American can also produce rather farcical results – but on the other hand I think most of us have already figured that out for ourselves…

 

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A Silver Screen showing (with, of course, free biscuits) is still probably the best ticket in town when it comes to value for money, but second place is definitely a proper full-scale revival of a mid-period David Lean movie, complete with overture, interval, and entr’acte, all of which usually work together to push the running time to somewhere well over three and a half hours. Lean’s films seem to have been conceived as grand spectacles as much as actual stories, with a level of ambition it’s hard to find amongst serious modern film-makers (one might also suggest that modern movie studies aren’t big fans of providing that much value for money, either).

Latest recipient of the full revival treatment is Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, his famously lengthy epic of love and death in the midst of the Russian revolution and its aftermath. Zhivago is currently enjoying its golden anniversary, which probably explains why it’s being given a run-out – it seems to be that this film has never quite enjoyed the same critical acclaim as Lawrence of Arabia, but it retains a certain reputation, not to mention its place on the list of the top ten most-watched movies in history.

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This being a Lean movie, it’s a fairly long time before we meet Dr Zhivago himself properly, and the film opens with a framing sequence in which Zhivago’s brother (Alec Guinness), a Red Army general, interviews a young female worker from one of the USSR’s engineering projects (this scene is presumably set in the late 1940s or early 1950s), trying to establish if she is in fact his late brother’s daughter. And of course he ends up telling her Zhivago’s life story.

(A bit of a digression here – and it’s not as if Doctor Zhivago doesn’t digress itself – but I am currently engaged in the cultural education of a young person, which has mainly involved our watching the Star Wars movies and various other old classics. I was a bit disappointed, therefore, when we watched Kind Hearts and Coronets and my charge completely failed to recognise Obi-Wan Kenobi even though he plays about eight different characters. So when we went to see Zhivago, I actually made it clear that Guinness would be in this film and I was expecting to have him pointed out to me. It’s not the most demanding challenge ever set: the very first shot after the credits, pretty much, is a very nice portrait of Alec Guinness more or less facing the camera. But was there a little thrill of recognition at the sight of old Obi-Wan? Regrettably not. My work continues.)

Orphaned at a young age somewhere out on the endless Russian steppe, the young Yuri Zhivago is adopted by a wealthy Muscovite family and grows up to become a happy, well-educated, and only vaguely Egyptian young man (he is of course played by Omar Sharif, in a piece of casting that we take for granted now). He is kept busy with his medical studies (duh) and with being a poet, which is why the first act of the film is much more about the beautiful young Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman attracting the unwelcome attention of well-connected but cynical man-about-town Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), while actually having a thing for dedicated young revolutionary Antipov (Tom Courtenay).

Well, apart from someone nearly getting shot, not very much happens in the first act of the film, plot-wise, but eventually the First World War kicks off with the Russian Revolution following close behind. This being a film set in Russia, what follows is mainly a chronicle of people making very long journeys (usually in the snow), losing touch with each other, disappearing, reappearing unexpectedly, snatching moments of happiness, falling foul of the government – you know the sort of thing. In the end… well, I suppose spoilers are still a potential problem, even for a fifty-year-old movie, plus there is the issue of…

Well, here’s the thing: Doctor Zhivago is an example of film-making on a genuinely epic, lavish scale, with some marvellous set pieces and your actual cast of thousands on display. Freddie Young’s cinematography is sumptuous, Maurice Jarre’s score is beautiful, and David Lean marshals the whole proceedings with his usual masterly touch. You are never really doubt that, in some way, you are watching one of the great films of all time. (It’s also hard to shake the suspicion that Lean would have been the first to agree with you – the opening, with an orphan being taken in by relatives, perhaps inevitably recalls that of Citizen Kane, and one could argue that Zhivago’s balalaika serves a similar narrative role as Kane’s sledge, so maybe Lean had set his sights on supplanting Welles.)

It’s not as if there aren’t some lovely performances in the movie, either. Sharif is perhaps a touch too hello-clouds-hello-sky to really be an engaging protagonist, and one does wonder quite why it was Tom Courtenay who snagged an Oscar nomination when he’s not actually in the film that much, but you also have Ralph Richardson working his magic as Zhivago’s adoptive father and a really heavy-duty turn by Rod Steiger, turning a character who could just have been a bully into someone rather more complex and charismatic. Guinness himself only has a handful of scenes, but he also gets the voice-over, and uses them to deliver a typically memorable turn, with the benefit of some of the best lines in the movie.

But, one has to ask, what’s it all actually in aid of? All these characters appear and (more importantly) disappear from the movie, seemingly at random. The story stays fixated on Zhivago and Lara and their various comings together and movings apart, and in the end it all climaxes in… what? Not much of anything. There’s no real big finish, no resolution of the film’s themes or big idea. It doesn’t climax so much as phut.

Then again, this isn’t really a film about big ideas, it’s a film about trying to stay out of their way – Zhivago says as much, that he’s only interested in making the best of the life he has now (his name is derived from the Russian zhivoy, meaning living), and this is what the film is about, not a conflict between ideologies (although this does inevitably comprise much of the backdrop to the film) but a conflict between an ideological world-view and a simpler, more personal one. Which is fine, but it does just mean that Zhivago and Lara just wander through the film while more interesting things seem to be happening to other characters off-camera. It’s an epic movie about a man trying to live a small life, which is an odd proposition from the start.

Perhaps it’s also a problem that this is a film about a famous poet, yet we never hear any of his actual poetry, which strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. Having said that, Lean has a hell of a good go at bringing Zhivago’s poetic sensibility to the screen in a few extraordinary sequences – during the funeral at the start of the film, there’s a sequence intercutting the young boy’s face, leaves swirling in the wind, actual shots of the body inside the buried coffin, and all the time the music swelling to let you know that something significant is happening… and rather than being just a bit too overblown to take seriously, it’s very nearly breathtaking. But too often the film doesn’t achieve this level of intensity, and you’re left with everyone wandering about and a pleasant, if not really gripping, romance.

I can’t help wondering to what extent the actual details of the Russian Revolution are strictly germane to the plot, either. Inevitably the film ultimately comes out as disapproving towards Communism, but if it had the slightest intention of illuminating this period of history it doesn’t really achieve it – everyone talks about the Red Guards and the White Guards and the Bolsheviks and the Far Eastern Republic, but how it all hangs together in any kind of coherent historical context I’ve no idea. If the turmoil in Russia is just here as a backdrop to a romance, I can’t help but think that’s a missed opportunity, not to mention a bit glib. I don’t know.

I went to see Lawrence of Arabia three years ago, when that got a golden anniversary re-release, and emerged with my understanding and appreciation of the film greatly strengthened – but this time round, I don’t know. This is a film stuffed with great things of all kinds, but somehow they never completely gel together into a totally satisfying whole – the film almost feels not quite finished, or as though key sequences have been accidentally excised at the editing stage. This is still a very fine film of a kind that they simply don’t make any more, and I did enjoy watching it, even if only for its technical virtuosity and the performances. But the story isn’t quite compelling enough for it to be a genuine masterpiece, or the timeless classic it obviously would like to be.

 

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