Vasilii Chiginskii: Mirror Wars. Reflection One (Zerkal'nye voiny: Otrazhenie 1, 2005)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland© 2006

The most disturbing aspect of this film is its subtitle. Given the recent trend toward multi-part film series, whether on television or on the big screen, it is reasonable to fear that the mirror in question is a many-faceted glass and that we shall yet be assaulted by several more “reflections” of a war whose original is both familiar and quite sufficient. At the same time, the title is more appropriate than its author presumably intended. Mirror Wars is as insubstantial as any reflection in a mirror—it resembles not so much a finished cinematic production as a rough sketch for a film that has yet to be produced in earnest.

The confused plot depicts the intrigue and violence surrounding the testing and demonstration of Russia’s next-generation military fighter aircraft. As the Russian air force arranges to demonstrate its prowess at a Moscow air show, a shadowy group identified with both organized crime and international terrorists plans to steal the plane in order either to sell it on the black market or to use it to assassinate the US President and, thus, set off a conflict between the former Cold-War enemies. The action plays itself out on several levels: it abruptly shifts back and forth among a small cohort of young Russian test pilots, field operatives of the state security services, and political leaders at the highest levels of government. The true configuration of forces remains unclear to the end of the film (making at least one sequel inevitable), but the viewer is given to understand that the forces of evil have infiltrated the political and military leadership of at least one major world power.

The central character and real hero of the film is the plane itself, nicknamed “Sabretooth” and portrayed by an actual SU-35 fighter jet. Marketing publicity for the film stresses the fact that all aerial scenes were filmed and edited without any computerized special effects. The film’s celebratory denouement, constructed without a hint of irony, is dedicated not to the human heroes but to the plane as hero and object of patriotic love and devotion. It is clear that the film was meant as a showcase for the plane itself, and it comes as no surprise to learn from the film’s author that the ten million dollars to make the film came largely from the Sukhoi aircraft company, apparently in order to advertise the newest models of its fighter jets. Product placement has clearly been taken to a new level in Russian cinema. Apropos of the film’s author, this refers not to director Chiginskii, who has demonstrated his directorial competence in First After God (Pervyi posle boga, 2005), but to Oleg Kapanets, who not only produced the film, but also wrote the script and played the role of the less idiotic of two FSB agents.

While some viewers may perhaps find the aerial scenes impressive, it seems that the producer never thought very hard about the other aspects of making a coherent film. The work of the actors seems nonchalant at best and occasionally outright incompetent. Chiginskii’s direction shows no particular inspiration, and the camera work impresses only during the aerial scenes. The single most important problem with the film, however, is undoubtedly the script, which is not only riddled with errors of fact and continuity glitches, but fails to accomplish the most elementary tasks of storytelling. Nothing about the plot of this film is convincing and, what is more serious, it is impossible for the viewer to care about the fate of any character in the film. The love story between the lead pilot Kedrov and the American environmentalist Katherine is completely unbelievable and fails to motivate their later behavior. Two bumbling FSB agents enter the action without any introduction, yet their character quirks and much too cute dialogue suggest that the viewers already recognize them as old friends. The father–son conflict is also introduced into the plot without even the most basic details and relies on anachronistic, Soviet-era clichés for its emotional climax. The coincidence that the father developed the plane that the son is now flying is also unexplained—the film seems completely oblivious to the ridiculously obvious question of whether the pretty-boy flier became a test pilot on his own merits or thanks to family connections. In short, not a single character in this film is developed to any real extent and it is inexplicable how any viewer could be expected to care about their fate.

Another significant problem with this film, at least with the version released in Russia, is the fact that it was quite obviously filmed with English dialogue and then dubbed (back) into Russian for its domestic release. Foreign agents thus speak Russian with native accents, and the entire soundtrack has been edited with such technical carelessness that this “military-patriotic” film cannot but appear as an insult to its Russian viewers. This is perhaps also a function of the film’s funding source: Mirror Wars is intended to advertise Sukhoi fighter jets to potential foreign clients rather than to entertain Russian audiences. Ironically, the film has not yet been released in any other country in the more than nine months since its Russian premiere.

As the film functions as a ten-million-dollar advertising campaign for a fighter jet, it manifests no clear or coherent artistic concept. The filmmaker, thus, seems to have defaulted to a kind of vaguely sensed master plot in order to flesh out the contours of a feature film. In this way, it is interesting to note the elements common to this film and to Evgenii Lavrent'ev’s Countdown (Lichnyi nomer, 2004), another film reportedly financed by the military-industrial sector and featuring Western actors among a mostly Russian cast. In both films a good-hearted and intrepid woman from the West is paired with a Russian action hero, although Lavrent'ev manages to do without the insipid love story. Beyond the lead characters, both films present a similar configuration of forces. Russia and the United States are aligned more or less on the same side, while the security and intelligence services of both countries work to protect and preserve order against an unholy alliance of organized criminals and terrorist warlords together with their mercenary fighters. The security services are not idealized in either film: it is a brutal world out there and spy organizations must often deal heartlessly with their own agents for the sake of the greater good. Security and order are clearly valued higher than old-fashioned notions of truth or justice. While the terrorists in Countdown are somewhat differentiated, we learn almost nothing about either the identity or the goals of the terrorist leaders in Mirror Wars. In both films, Russia saves the West thanks to the courage of its lone hero, although the conflict is so muddled in Chiginskii’s film that the Russian characters constantly refer to the American leader simply as “the President” even as his Russian counterpart is simultaneously taking some kind of decisive action at a summit meeting in Rome. It takes no particular insight to comprehend the crude political allegory. In the final analysis, the most striking aspect of Mirror Wars is the way it so naively and so incompetently follows an increasingly familiar new “master plot.” [1]

Gerald McCausland
University of Pittsburgh


1] I deliberately employ the term coined by Katerina Clark in her study of Soviet Socialist Real-ism: The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual, 3rd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000.

Mirror Wars: Reflection One, Russia, 2005
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Vasilii Chiginskii
Screenplay: Aleks Kustanovich and Oleg Kapanets
Cinematography: Sergei Kozlov and Vladimir Gurchin
Design: Vladimir Trapeznikov
Music: Aleksei Belov and David Robbins
Cast: Valerii Nikolaev, Mikhail Gorevoi, Aleksandr Efimov, Malcolm McDowell, Rutger Hauer, Armand Assante, Kseniia Alferova, Ivars Kalnins, Ol'ga Iakovtseva, Oleg Kapanets
Producer: Oleg Kapanets
Production: Kremlin Films

Vasilii Chiginskii: Mirror Wars. Reflection One (Zerkal'nye voiny: Otrazhenie 1, 2005)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland© 2006

Updated: 04 Jul 06