Issue 32 (2011)
Anton Megerdichev: Dark World (Temnyi mir, 2010)
reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2011
By virtue of being Russia’s first movie in 3-D, Dark World has already earned itself at least a footnote in all future histories of Russian cinema. This is not to say, however, that Anton Megerdichev will join Nikolai Ekk, director of The Road to Life (Putevka v zhizn’, 1931), as one of the important pioneers among Russian filmmakers. Contrary to popular tradition, the latter film’s historical status as Russia’s first sound film is subject to interpretation and, in any case, its enduring legacy rests upon more than its one technical innovation. It constitutes an important step in the construction of an enduring theme (the bezprizorniki, the problem of Russia’s orphaned children) and it manifests in its narrative structure an almost perfect example of Socialist Realism avant la lettre. Thus the significance of Dark World will rest on more than its claim to be Russia’s first 3-D film. What else does it offer?
The film begins promisingly enough. We are introduced to the young protagonist, Marina, and to a love triangle that portends a great deal of storm and stress. These three turn out to be university students of philology about to set off on a trip into the Russian north to carry out field research in folklore. As our group of young people travels into the dark forests along with their professor, talk of supernatural evil forces and jokes of ancient Russian witch figures prepare us for an interesting, specifically Russian permutation of a Hollywood teen slasher film in which the standard maniacal serial killer or mutant wilderness beast is replaced with specifically Russian folkloric content.
Unfortunately, the promise is misleading and ultimately unfulfilled. The content of the film is neither specifically Russian nor at all philologically consistent or consequent. The film was shot in the forests of northern Russia, in a part of Karelia close to the Finnish border. The area is rich in Finnish and Lappish history and it is perhaps not terribly surprising that, when the supernatural figures inevitably appear, they bear the characteristics and traits of these northern figures. Nevertheless, the choice of these non-Russian figures is neither motivated nor contextualized in any coherent way. Lack of coherence is, in fact, the most striking characteristic of the entire film. Its plot, characters, and overall composition seem random, fragmentary, and confused. It is difficult to determine from watching the finished product whether this film is based on a single vague idea, the details of which were then never sufficiently worked out, or whether it springs from a hodgepodge of gestures that were never brought under coherent artistic control.
As virtually every critic noted upon the film’s release, the first matter of confusion in Dark World is its genre—a very serious problem indeed for a film so structured around genre clichés and conventions. As noted above, the film begins in the key of a teenage-oriented horror film with folk incantations and Baba Yaga replacing the conventional science-run-amok and mutant monsters. After seeming to flirt with the fairy-tale and vampire genres, the film suddenly and jarringly modulates into a completely different key and we find ourselves drawn into a strange hybrid between, on the one hand, a spy thriller of the “government conspiracy” sub-type, and on the other hand, fantasy reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings saga. The radical disruption of the viewer’s expectations that results can function productively only in a very tightly structured narrative that offers support to the viewers in their disorientation. But one searches in vain for any overarching sense to the strange turn of events and not even the confusing, almost recursive double-ending manages to bind things together into a coherent unity.
Multifariously consistent with the messiness of the film’s genre identity is its open exploitation of the most annoying characteristic of several of these genres: in its early phase of rising action, Dark World does not make even the slightest attempt to establish the “rules of the game” before the conflicts begin in earnest. Much as a comic-book superhero is licensed to pull out the latest supergadget to vanquish the villain at the climax of a seemingly hopeless fight, so the viewers of Dark World are expected to accept the action of a film that makes up the rules as it goes along. We learn only halfway through the film that the central conflict of the film is not between rivals for an unworthy man or between mortals and the supernatural, but between the lake witches and a demon army in the service of an ancient and evil warlock. Neither the cause nor the object of the conflict is outlined in advance, nor does this information, when finally introduced, seem to play any more than a fleeting role. To take just one example, Marina learns that she is heir to the Queen of the lake witches, but after she undergoes a kind of black baptism, takes on her leadership role and leads the witches into battle against the demons, she learns 1) that she was never in fact meant to be the queen of the witches and, 2) that the question of her identity never played any significant role anyway. Such are the internal workings of the entire plot. Characters are killed and then reappear. Magic functions by rules that seem, at best, subject to circumstances, if not completely random.
A similarly lackadaisical effort seems to guide character development and casting. Despite respectable efforts by several of the actors, characters are weakly drawn and suffer from strange casting decisions. The genuinely beautiful Svetlana Ivanova is neither attractive nor convincing as the morose, disaffected Marina. Her goth makeup, in particular, seems to fade in and out as unpredictably as the film’s 3-D effects long before dark magic does its transformative work. Eyeglasses and dopey gaping stares are insufficient to make Ivan Zhidkov’s portrayal of the geeky, hopelessly love-struck Kostia convincing. The exaggerated ethnic coloring of the token Uzbek is unmotivated and if meant to be comic, achieves nothing more than being annoying. The acting of Il'ia Alekseev and Mariia Kozhevnikova is as shallow as the roles they play. The selection and direction of Elena Panova and Sergei Ugriumov seem to aim less at character development and more at the elicitation of specific certain cultural associations on the part of Russian audiences.
These associations give us the clearest sense of what little systematic unity the film might nevertheless have. The initial appearances of the warlock, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, immediately suggest a new-Russian gangster turned government minister. His demon minions both reinforce and complicate the associations, recalling in their appearance and behavior both thuggish foot soldiers of organized crime groups and elite troops of Russia’s paramilitary special forces. But before the viewer has time to conflate the “dark world” of the title with the various faces of contemporary Russian power structures, we are introduced to their adversaries, the lake witches. These equally dark figures appear utterly non-Russian, more Amazonian warriors than water-dwelling spirits. It is unclear what motivates their battle with the warlock more: is he for them primarily an ancient, all-powerful enemy or, rather, merely a representative of the “lower creatures,” which is to say, of men. But this ham-handed swipe at feminism is likewise short-circuited by a plot that reveals, in a shockingly banal twist, that it was not youthful arrogance, curiosity, or stupidity that awoke the dark magical forces. The students are ultimately punished for giving in to their sexual desires. Marina’s lust for power and her lust for Artur spring from the same source and drive her to her own destruction. She is ultimately redeemed by the insipidly pure, worshipful devotion of the innocent, utterly nonsexual Kostia. Her only hope for happiness is in total submission to the mentorship of her university professor and the love of the teacher’s pet. The forces of light that oppose dark magic are ultimately to be found not in the mysteries of a secret guild, but in the authoritarian academic discipline of institutionalized education. If Dark World follows any consistent ideological program, it is a program of unabashed misogyny.
The 3-D effects are employed in less than one quarter of the film’s running time and seem to be reserved above all for long shots in dark forests and for flying things of all kinds. The effects form a constituent part of neither the narrative structure nor the thematic content of the film. They are employed, quite simply, for the sake of effect, which turns out to be the only real achievement of the work. Although the structure and the content of the film disrespect the intelligence of the viewer, the film nonetheless manages to entertain its presumably younger audience and even the most critical of viewer responses (judging from internet fora) express no regret at the time spent watching Dark World. Some viewers even suggest that the film is a parody, attributing to Megerdichev an artistic vision that the film itself does not justify. What the film suggests is that Russian filmmakers have finally learned that box office success does not require respect for the audience. Perhaps it is time finally to agree with those patriotic defenders of Russian cinema who claim, with equal amounts of pride and ressentiment, that today’s Russian cinema is indeed “no worse than Hollywood.”
University of Pittsburgh
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Dark World, Russia, 2010
Color, 100 mins
Director: Anton Megerdichev
Script: Aleksei Sidorov and Aleksandr Dorbinian
Cinematography: Anton Antonov
Art Design: Aleksei Sidorov
Special Effects: Pavel Bezborodov
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Aleksei Sidorov
Production: Central Partnership—Shaman Pictures
Cast: Svetlana Ivanova, Ivan Zhidkov, Elena Panova, Sergei Ugriumov, Vladimir Nosik, Tat'iana Kuznetsova, Il'ia Alekseev, Mariia Kozhevnikova
Anton Megerdichev: Dark World (Temnyi mir, 2010)
reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2011