Issue 29 (2010)

Dmitrii Kiselev and Aleksandr Voitinskii: Black Lightning (Chernaia molniia, 2009)

reviewed by Muireann Maguire © 2010


molniaNot many reviews of modern Russian cinema begin “If you liked Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, you’ll like this.” However, if you did like Chitty, or any of the Back to the Future movies, or Spiderman, or even Robin Hood (the legend rather than the recent blockbuster), you will certainly enjoy Black Lightning,Dmitrii Kiselev’s and Aleksandr Voitinskii’s gleefully ludicrous take on all of the above, in their tale of a modern Moscow superhero and his fine four-fendered friend, a venerable Volga Gaz-21. Even the lack of the Sherman Brothers’ rollicking theme tune to Chitty is compensated by the revved-up soundtrack featuring acts such as A-Studio and Serega. None of the above should suggest that Black Lightning is excessively indebted to Western cinema: it combines all the slick production values one would expect from Timur Bekmambetov with layers of witty references to Soviet cultural values and some fine all-Russian character acting.

molniaThe hero of Black Lightning is a very ordinary young Muscovite, Dima Maikov (Grigorii Dobrygin, now better known outside Russia for his role in Aleksei Popogrebskii’s How I Ended The Summer [Kak ia provel etim letom, 2010]). A student at Moscow State University, Dima is almost, but not quite, inured to losing out in the conspicuous consumption stakes to his best friend Max (Ivan Zhidkov), who drives a white Mercedes to class and owns the latest smartphone. But then three things happen at once: Max and Dima fall for the same girl, the luminous Nastia Svetlova (Ekaterina Vilkova); Max’s family surprise him with a car for his birthday; and he meets Viktor Kuptsov (Viktor Verzhbitskii), aka Mr Nasty Novyi Russkii. Kuptsov, a successful entrepreneur, is invited to give a lecture on business strategy at the university. Max almost misses the lecture because he unselfishly helps an incoherent drunk onto a trolleybus. Just in case the audience misses the reference to the classic Soviet comedy Operation Y and Other Adventures of Shurik (Operatsiia ‘Y’ i drugie prikliucheniia Shurika, 1965), the drunk starts shouting about its director, Leonid Gaidai, as the bus moves off. Dima uses this incident for a moral duel with Kuptsov in the auditorium: is it worth a million rubles to refuse help to another human being? Although Dima succeeds in embarrassing the magnate, he is nonetheless swayed by Kuptsov’s arch-capitalist ethics and determines to emulate him by working his own way from rags to riches (with Nastia, strolling by on cue with Max, as the ultimate reward). He takes a job as a delivery driver for a flower shop run by an exploitative Georgian (Dato Bakhtadze), whose cupidity and self-interest is one of the more unpleasant stereotypes represented in this film.

molniaMeanwhile, unbeknownst to Dima, Kuptsov is heavily committed to a drilling project intended to extract diamonds from vast beds beneath Moscow, with the probable side-effect of destroying the city and its inhabitants. From his HQ in a skyscraper entitled “Diamond Tower”, Kuptsov schemes to recover a mysterious “nanocatalizer” that will activate the giant drill. The nanocatalizer was apparently built in the 1970s by a team of scientists working on a top-secret project, but the team was dispersed after the project appeared to fail. In fact, one of the scientists faked the failure of the nanocatalizer; he did not feel humanity was ready for the technological advantages his invention could unleash. For three decades, the tiny engine had lurked inside the chassis of a Volga Gaz-21 designed as the first test flying car, moldering within a forgotten underground laboratory until sold by unscrupulous construction workers to Dima’s father. Dima is unaware of his car’s extraordinary abilities until he accidentally turns on the flight function when chased by Kuptsov’s henchmen. The car sprouts a pair of retractable metal wings, fires exhaust from a hidden jet engine, and heads skyward, eventually parking its bewildered driver in an abandoned multi-storey garage. Soon after, Dima becomes an undercover superhero, rescuing handbags from snatch thieves, children from burning houses, pedestrians from falling icicles, and cats from trees (probably). “Black Lightning,” the hero in a hoodie, receives adoring press from all the Moscow papers and responds to S.O.S. requests via his own social networking page. There seems to be no disaster that a high-speed airborne Volga cannot avert—until Kuptsov forces the scientists from the original sharashka to build a flying Mercedes and goes bumper-to-bumper with Dima on New Year’s Eve, fighting for control of the nanocatalizer in the skies over the Kremlin.

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molniaAll this high drama takes place against the background of two sub-plots: the predictable Max-Nastia-Dima love triangle, and the theme of the individual’s moral duty to society. The students-in-love story is inevitably derivative of two recent films, Valerii Todorovskii’s Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) and Karen Shakhnazarov’s The Vanished Empire (Izcheznuvshaia imperiia, 2008) but lacks their emotional heft. Nastia’s character never transcends the insubstantial cliché of the prettiest girl in the class. Capitalism is frankly demonized: the choice of Verzhbitskii, who played the twinkling infernal prince Zavulon in the Night Watch films (and essentially re-enacts this role in Black Lightning), to play the self-made oligarch role is unlikely to set Russian subscriptions to The Economist soaring. Max loses the viewer’s sympathy when he attempts to express love in terms of capital, telling Dima that the latter “can’t afford” a girl like Nastia. Ironically, Dima promptly loses Nastia’s sympathy by letting Max believe they spent the night together. Modern issues such as street violence, soulless consumerism, wage inequity, alcoholism, and loss of faith in the police are namechecked but not seriously addressed. The producer claims that Dima’s character is intended to answer a need for non-Western hero figures; but even Bekmambetov admits that the only precursor Russian culture can offer is Dubrovskii (Bekmambetov 2009). Readers of Pushkin’s unfinished novel will recall that its hero is stymied mid-tale when, after a short career of nobly intentioned pillage, the woman he loves departs as the legal wife of a much older man (and, indeed, Nastia is briefly borne off in Kuptsov’s white Mercedes). Dima Maikov may emerge as Russia’s first home-made hero (at least, since the ambiguous figure of Danila in Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997)) but, like Dubrovskii, he is very much a hero without a cause. Even the looming catastrophe of Moscow’s pulverisation (if Kuptsov successfully activates the drill) is never as clearly realized as, for example, the similar threat of destruction by vortex threatened in Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor, 2004). This is partly because an imminent geological implosion is more difficult to film than an imminent tornado, and partly because the directors are too attached to the humane trivialities of Dima’s life.

molniaThe film’s moral message remains, to say the least, confused. The alternative model to selfish careerism is unhelpful: true love, as epitomized by the members of Dima’s idealized nuclear family, especially his tram-driver father (Sergei Garmash, reprising his folksy-dad-with-a-heart-of-gold role from Hipsters). Dima’s father is an old-fashioned romantic, always ready to help others, who fearlessly punches a street tough to save a damsel in distress, and who remains gravely under-impressed by his son’s new-found entrepreneurship. His death in a revenge stabbing, and Dima’s accidental failure to help, triggers the latter’s metamorphosis into “Black Lightning”. But given that both Dima and his father ultimately make the same moral choices—to unselfishly help others—they also face the same dangers; the only bulwark between Dima and an unfriendly world is his flying Volga. Nor do Dima’s new eleemosynary ethics prevent him from thriving in exactly the same capitalist system as before, earning ludicrously high commissions by flying over traffic jams. He woos Nastia with his iPhone as well as his altruism. In short, Dima enjoys the moral high ground only as long as his nanocatalizer can carry him up there. Black Lightning attacks market capitalism, but it offers no replacement morality besides sentimentality, and no social alternatives except nostalgia.

molniaThe car is, of course, the real hero of Black Lightning, and the Volga Gaz-21 is very much a Soviet hero-car.  Its large-scale production signaled the Soviet Union’s postwar economic recovery. Last manufactured in 1979, the car now recalls the good old days prior to perestroika—a living symbol of the sturdiness, durability and economy of Soviet craftsmanship. Yuri Gagarin was presented with one after returning from space (presumably, in view of Black Lightning’s conclusion, in case he was planning a return trip). The same model famously appears in another Soviet classic with a Robin Hood-ish theme, El’dar Riazanov’s Beware of the Car (Beregis’ avtomobiliia, 1966) (Wikipedia).Those who make lists of such things claim that this model features in no fewer than 265 Russian and Soviet films. Not only does Dima’s Volga repeatedly save lives on its aerial missions, it influences day-to-day behavior: the same alcoholic (Mikhail Efremov) who made Dima late for class decides to abandon drink after seeing a flying vehicle a couple of times. By the film’s end, in a friendly nod to Georgii Daneliia’s Autumn Marathon (Osennii marafon, 1979), he and his newly teetotal buddies (one of whom is played by the co-director, Aleksandr Voitinskii) are out for a jog in the snow, complete with bobble hats and impractical trainers. 

molniaHistorians of the American obsession with car ownership have argued that the modern automobile is a phallic symbol. In this context, one dreads to analyze the symbolic contest between Dima and Kuptsov, since the latter possesses not only a larger, more expensive car (a Mercedes), but a still more obviously phallic drill-bit with which he intends to figuratively rape Moscow’s geological matrix. Freudian analysis of the nanocatalizer—which is forcibly transferred from the Volga’s engine to the giant drill—exceeds the analogical capacity of human biology. Notwithstanding such speculation, the Volga Gaz-21 remains an enduring symbol of Russian technological prowess. As Dima’s father tells his underwhelmed son after presenting him with his four-wheeled birthday present, “Putin has one just like this”. Indeed he does: he even took Bush out for a spin in it. One can only hope that George W. brought along some air-sickness pills and a parachute.

Muireann Maguire
Jesus College, Cambridge

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Works Cited

Timur Bekmambetov, interview with Polina Gribovskaia, “U nas net geroev, potomu chto my ikh ne sozdali,” Interfaks, 22 December 2009.

Wikipedia for information on Volga-related facts and Gaz-21.

 


Black Lightning, Russia, 2009
Color, 115 minutes
Directors: Dmitrii Kiselev, Aleksandr Voitinskii
Scriptwriter: Dmitrii Aleinikov, Aleksandr Talal
Cast: Grigorii Dobrygin, Ekaterina Vilkova, Ivan Zhidkov, Viktor Verzhbitskii, Valerii Zolotukhin, Sergei Garmash, Mikhail Efremov
Producer: Timur Bektambetov
Production: Universal Pictures, Bazelevs

Dmitrii Kiselev and Aleksandr Voitinskii: Black Lightning (Chernaia molniia, 2009)

reviewed by Muireann Maguire © 2010

Updated: 16 Jul 10