Issue 50 (2015)
Denis Rodimin: The Guest (Gost’, 2015)
reviewed by José Alaniz© 2015
Since the Night Watch series (Timur Bekmambetov, 2004–2006) inaugurated the modern, post-Soviet phase 2 of Russian sci-fi cinema, the genre has lurched from summer blockbuster fare (Black Lightning/Chernaia molniia, dirs. Dmitrii Kiselev, Aleksandr Voitinskii, 2009) to politicized parody (First on the Moon/Pervye na lune, dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko, 2005) to metaphysical grandiloquence (Hard to Be A God/Trudno byt’ bogom, dir. Aleksei Iu.German, 2013).
Denis Rodimin’s The Guest at one point or another appeals to all these constituencies, in the end satisfying none. The film is ham-handed and tedious, its two attractive young protagonists oddly alienating, its humorless plot a diminishment of humanity’s place in the universe—to mere nihilistic ends. It strives for the profundity of Arthur C. Clarke or the Strugatskii Brothers, but has neither the ideas nor the vision to come off as anything other than puerile.
Bad films, though, have pieces of other, better works embedded in them; even as they fail, their symptomatic anxiety of influence can help us to rethink and reconnect with the roots of the genre they seek to uphold. Such is the case with a viewing of The Guest.
Rodimin, a successful screenwriter and first-time feature director, self-consciously partakes here of science fiction’s rich history in Russian literature and cinema. The film begins with a trek to a remote blast site which immediately recalls the 1908 Tunguska meteor strike, a devastating explosion which leveled forests in Krasnoyarsk Krai, in remote Siberia. The so-called “Tunguska event” emerged as a major trope of Russian ufology and SF, from Aleksandr Kazantsev’s 1946 short story A Visitor From Outer Space (which Rodimin’s film superficially resembles) to Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice trilogy (2002–2005). Rodimin also seems to be referencing a more recent meteor impact, in 2013 over the Ural mountains.
Two Moscow graduate student scientists venture into this wasteland to investigate the impact. Anomalies quickly ensue, including an explosion (which consumes their tent and most of their equipment) set off by nothing more than mixing the local irradiated earth with distilled water. A pair of goggles that survive the fire allow the pair to see a strange luminosity invisible to the naked eye, a sort of heavenly column that stretches to the sky. (These “magic” lenses recall Daniil Kharms’ short story “An Optical Illusion”; the recurring effect is one of the film’s few interesting visuals.) They follow it through various villages and towns, meeting several lost souls, eventually realizing that they walk in the tracks of a mysterious man who works miracles (including the resurrection of a corpse). Their scientific curiosity turns to religious mania as they long to meet the stranger, protect him from corrupt forces bent on his death, and become his disciples. They come to believe him the Savior returned to Earth to redeem humanity.
Rodimin’s film here drinks deeply of Russian SF’s preoccupation with metaphysics; as Anita Banerjee explains, the genre has since the 19th century tended to take “mere analysis and mechanics [as] portals for entering a higher state of existence, a ‘reality of being’ (bytie) quite different from mundane ‘daily life’ (byt)” (Banerjee 2012, 3). It borrows as well from the Strugatskiis’ Roadside Picnic (1972), in which an alien visitation turns the dead into zombie-like “moulages” for its image of the revived husband (who exasperates a wife eager to run off with her lover).
These various set-pieces and borrowings, however, are drained of their sources’ genuine profundity. What for the Strugatskiis and Stanislav Lem are mind-expanding encounters with an unknowable, implacable force betokening God (or at least the human yearning for God) in The Guest become cliché-driven melodrama, cheap histrionics and banalities – none worse than that old cop-out, “it was all a dream.” Let Rodimin’s choice to “universalize” his story by not giving his characters names stand for a whole slew of his film’s other infelicities. We are clearly meant to read She (Ekaterina Steblina) and He (Arnas Fedaravicius) as the 21st-century Adam and Eve, on the cusp of discovering the next phase of human evolution, the Second Coming, the end of the world, or something like that. But again, what works for Andrei Tarkovsky in Stalker, his 1979 adaptation of Roadside Picnic, flounders due to performances as wooden as the dialogue. (The latter really falls flat compared to Rodimin’s scripts on the action-driven Bimmer films, where he seems much more at home.) The pseudo-documentary camerawork also contributes nothing to the sense of mystery; scenes are pedestrian, actions predictable. We are far from Tarkovsky indeed.
We have come to expect dry exposition, even alienating dialogue, in such movies; that’s not necessarily a problem. Vivian Sobchak, among others, has noted SF’s emphasis on spectacle at the expense of language as critical to the functioning of the genre itself (at least in the US):
The banality, the laconic and inexpressive verbal shorthand and jargon, the scientific pomposity, are needed to counterbalance the fear (of both falling and flying) generated by the visual image which takes risks and is unsettling. How do we reconcile the visual sight of a rocket launch (all fire and thrust and movement) with the verbal reduction of that image to an “A-OK. We have lift off[?]” (Sobchak 1987, 151).
But this is precisely what The Guest fails to do: counterbalance its vapid, just-the-facts dialogue and paper-thin characterizations with a sense of true spectacle—or if not that, at least an authentic atmosphere of mystery, of real stakes, risks. We get none of it. By the end, when it has lost much of its focus, the film functions neither as an environmentalist fable nor a religious allegory, despite tired moves in both these directions.
Though, as mentioned, we do get pieces of other, more successful SF films cut-and-pasted into the proceedings. They provide some relief. I enjoyed, late in the story, a Tarkovsky-esque German Shepherd ambling across a road in the distance, trying to find its way back to Stalker (1979), or perhaps Nostalghia (1983). I would have liked to tag along.
1] Rodimin co-wrote the screenplays for the Bimmer series (Petr Buslov, 2003–2006), and wrote No One Knows About Sex (Nikto ne znaet pro seks, dir. Aleksei Gordeev, 2006) and Dukhless (Roman Prygunov, 2011), among other films.
3] On 14 February 2013, a large meteor (55 feet in diameter, 10,000 metric tons) exploded over Russia’s Ural Mountains. Over a thousand people were hurt by falling glass. Many on social media and other forums christened it “the Chelyabinsk Event” and compared the blast to Tunguska (Sample 2013).
4] In these early scenes Rodimin channels not only SF cinema but existentialist man-in-nature “survival” movies as well, such as Letter Never Sent (Neotpravlennoe pis’mo, dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1959) and the more recent How I Ended This Summer (Kak ia provel etim letom, dir. Aleksei Popogrebskii, 2010).
5] Rodimin seems uncertain how to represent the Russian countryside; he settles on a kind of compromise between hopelessly benighted (as in Necrorealist cinema) and picturesque. In any case, actors playing “simple rural folk” almost all have high cheek bones and appear implausibly glamorous.
6] With minor exceptions, such as the contemporary class divisions implied by She’s fixation on getting a job at a foreign university to escape her financial burdens, contrasted with the complacent He, who was born into privilege; and a mild critique of the Russian Orthodox church in the form of a materialistic seminarian (“Do you know how much that cost?” he yells after He tosses his cell phone away).
7] As Rodimin told an interviewer: “The theme of modern man’s apprehension of metaphysics has long preoccupied me. In the film there are a lot of mythological allusions; in essence it is built on them. In the modern world, and especially in our country, where we are constantly carrying on a search for the spiritual, questions about faith, God, the place of humanity are absolutely timely. My film is an attempt to discover a portion of this path” (Tuula 2015).
University of Washington, Seattle
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Banerjee, Anindita. 2012. We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP.
Jameson, Frederic. 2015. “In Hyperspace.” London Review of Books (10 September).
Sobchak, Vivian. 1987. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP.
Sample, Ian. 2013. “Scientists Reveal the Full Power of the Chelyabinsk Meteor Explosion.” The Guardian (7 November).
Tuula, Maksim. 2015. “Denis Rodimin: Eto kino ne bolee uslovnoe, chem ‘Mstiteli’.” Kinometro.ru (11 June).
The Guest, Russia, 2015
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Denis Rodimin
Screenplay: Denis Rodimin, Ol’ga Sleptsova
Cinematography: Oleg Lukichev
Editing: Sergei Ivanov
Production Design: Irina Grazhdankina
Music: Vladimir Kalinin
Sound: Aleksandr Fedenev
Cast: Arnas Fedaravicius, Ekaterina Steblina, Lidia Omutnykh, Vladimir Mishukov, Polina Pushkaruk, Maksim Bitiukov, Mariia Shashlova, Andrius Darela, Aleksandr Kononets, Ul’iana Lukina, Ekaterina Leonova, Aleksei Koval, Aleksandr Mezentsev, Kirill Bobrov
Producer: Sabina Eremeeva
Production: Studio SLON
Denis Rodimin: The Guest (Gost’, 2015)
reviewed by José Alaniz© 2015