Issue 54 (2016)
Roman Artem’ev: The Man from the Future (Chelovek iz budushchego, 2016)
reviewed by Masha Kisel© 2016
The Man from the Future was written and directed by Roman Artem’ev, a 2003 graduate of the Film Institute VGIK, who is best known for his work as an actor in such films as Children of the Arbat (Deti Arbata, 2004) and Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Groznyi, 2009). This sci-fi comedy tells the story of a middle-aged science teacher named Merkur’ev who saves the planet from a fallen piece of the sun by building a “sun diverter.” According to Merkur’ev’s calculations the proper functioning of the invention depends on the successful impregnation of a cashier named Gulia with the “savior of mankind.” The full-length feature is an expanded version of a fifteen-minute short film called The Savior (Spasitel’, 2013), which claimed the grand prize at the Russian short-film festival “Shorter” (Koroche).
The illogical plot works well within the context of a fifteen-minute comedy of errors: Merkur’ev (Aleksandr Chislov) approaches the wrong Gulia (Seseg Khapasova) and only realizes his mistake after they “immaculately consummate.” He runs off naked into the night, presumably to earnestly summon and seduce the proper Gulia with the same absurd explanation. At the end of the film Merkur’ev gleefully returns to his first Gulia, announcing that she was the right one all along. The short version was an effective joke with good pacing and a well-timed punch line, but the same joke fails to amuse in the 75-minute version. The short film was funny because the question of Merkur’ev’s authenticity and his true intentions remained unanswered. Was he really a scientist? Was he really from the future? Was he simply a madman taking advantage of apocalyptic circumstances to live out a sexual fantasy? In the full-length film the director ruins the absurdist sketch with futile attempts to make sense of a far-fetched premise. It’s like watching one of Daniil Kharms’ “Incidents” be turned into a crime drama: Why exactly did the old women fall out of a window?
In The Man from the Future Merkur’ev is not really from the future, but tells this white lie to convince both Gulias to go along with his strange plan. After Merkur’ev gains national fame for his heroic deed his fib is exposed and the public assumes that he is a fraud. Merkuriev, too, remains unsure whether it was really his actions that re-directed the falling piece of the sun. The connection between his earth-saving invention (the sun diverter) and the need to impregnate a cashier named Gulia is not made clear. Despite the high production quality, the film has a B-movie feel. The plot makes little sense and the characters lack both dramatic depth and comedic charm. The film’s true virtue lies in the director’s parodic play with American and Soviet cinematic repertoire. With artful diligence, Artem’ev demonstrates an arsenal of eclectic cinematic knowledge.
The film is set in modern-day Moscow, but makes visual allusions to popular American sci-fi comedies. The opening scene of the film depicts a nearly empty supermarket. Eerie music plays as flickering overhead fluorescent lamps illuminate empty aisles. Gulia (who we later find out is from Bishkek and therefore is “the wrong Gulia” because according to Merkur’ev’s calculations the mother of the savior must be from Tashkent) is a cashier closing up the store on the day the world ends. Her last customers buy vodka with comical nonchalance and invite Gulia to join them. She quietly responds that she prefers to remain in the store’s basement, where she has already “prepared everything.” The ominous tone is tinged with cartoonish farce. The two men preparing for a last bender and the young cashier preparing to hide out seem resigned to their fate, unbothered by the impending doom. Apocalyptic themes and apathy are regular features of post-Soviet cinema, but Western-style optimism and the righting of wrongs outshine the few dark moments in The Man from the Future.
After the two men leave Gulia begins to close up the store. Suddenly a nude Merkuriev mysteriously appears. Startled by a noise, Gulia fearfully looks around as an empty shopping cart rolls down the aisle. This recalls the opening library scene from the American film Ghostbusters (1984). The appearance of a nude man “from the future” also recalls the first Terminator (1984). Two hapless government agents with skinny black ties in pursuit of Merkur’ev evoke similar figures from American cinema, primarily Men in Black (1997).
The next scene, in which the naked Merkur’ev attempts to convince the horrified Gulia that he must impregnate her in order to save humanity, evokes Soviet romantic comedies of the 1970s. Like Zhenia Lukashin (Andrei Miagkov) in El’dar Riazanov’s film The Irony of Fate (Ironiia sud’by, 1976), Merkur’ev is a perpetually underestimated “small man” who finds himself in unusual circumstances that add heroism and romance to his life’s modest script. There are striking similarities between the “meet cute” of the two films. Zhenia Lukashin and Sasha Merkur’ev are both unclothed intruders who initially repulse and frighten, but eventually charm their incidental paramours. The relationship between Merkur’ev and the wrong Gulia recalls the case of mistaken identity and star-crossed love in The Irony of Fate. Artem’ev only gestures toward the familiar trappings of a love story, however, but fails to tell it.
Perhaps because the development of the science fiction plot takes precedence over the romcom conventions, Merkur’ev and Gulia don’t have a chance to get to know each other. Their mutual passion remains unexplained and inexplicable. Merkur’ev’s off-putting appearance and mannerisms must be offset by charisma to make him a convincing romantic lead, but he is no Bill Murray. Chislov spends most of the film cowering, slouching, twitching and blinking; his body language too grotesque for the viewer to accept him in the role of a lover. Artem’ev additionally borrows from the Soviet romantic comedy genre by pairing the sensitive intellectual with the crass man of action, who galvanizes the passive hero and often eggs him on toward trouble. One might recall Kharitonov (Evgenii Leonov)—the pushy neighbor from Georgii Daneliia’s Autumn Marathon (Osennii marafon, 1979) or Lukashin’s friends from the bathhouse in The Irony of Fate. In this case, Merkur’ev’s choleric accomplice is a woodshop teacher nicknamed Sania (Aleksandr Bashirov).
The second half of the film, set in Sania’s decaying dacha/ childhood home, takes a darker turn. Merkur’ev, now a fugitive from the law, longs for “the wrong Gulia.” He also feels guilty about deceiving the second Gulia, a flighty married woman (Maria Skornitskaia) who is thrilled with her celebrity status as the “mother of the future savior of mankind” and endures disappointment and a beating from her husband when her infidelity with Merkur’ev does not result in a divine pregnancy. In his bucolic solitude, Merkur’ev vacillates between productive optimism and resigned despair. A sequence where he attempts to repair and rebuild the ramshackle wooden house evokes the classic Russian theme of redemption through physical labor, but is followed by another familiar image of Russian emotion in a rural setting: despondency. Merkur’ev listlessly stares out of the window as rain falls through the holes in the roof, filling metal basins, buckets and bowls.
Following through on a Chekhovian moment, Merkur’ev unsuccessfully attempts suicide twice, stopped by an apparition of “the wrong Gulia” who beseeches him to remain hopeful.
The ending is happy, sappy and puzzling. Merkur’ev builds a very scrappy time machine in order to find out whether his sun diverter (no mention of the “immaculate conception”) really saved the world. He places a note with this question into the machine. That night he is pursued and scanned by mysterious glowing orbs and the following day the men in black pick him up in a helicopter and announce that he has received a message from the future. It turns out that he was the savior of humanity after all and will be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Back at his school, Merkur’ev writes out his formula on a chalkboard and notices a small mistake. Meanwhile, “the wrong Gulia” had just given birth to a little girl named Maria. Merkur’ev rushes to the hospital, levitates to the second-floor window and surprises the delighted new mother with the news that she was “the one” and they will be a family. We never find out whether baby Maria will become “the savior of humanity.”
This film received governmental funding as a selection in The Year of Russian Cinema: 2016. The condition for receiving such funding is to create films celebrating national accomplishments. The Russian Ministry of Culture “hopes to encourage films that tell the story of pioneering discoveries, creations or feats and the struggle of the human will to overcome life’s travails” (Child 2016). Despite the ridiculous premise, The Man from the Future is not a scathing satire of Russian society’s desperate need for heroes, but rather a triumphant affirmation that Russia boasts impressive heroes already. This is where Artem'ev deviates from the Soviet comedy and comes closer to the patriotic brightness of an American sci-fi blockbuster. It seems that The Man from the Future has earnestly entered into a sci-fi cinematic arms race to see which nation’s unlikely hero will save the world from the apocalypse first.
University of Dayton
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Child, Ben. 2016. “Russia Calls for Patriotic, Anti-Extremist Movies.” The Guardian 26 May.
The Man from the Future, Russia, 2016
Color, 75 minutes
Director: Roman Artem’ev
Scriptwriters: Roman Artem’ev, Mikhail Iarovikov
Art Director: Eduard Galkin
Music: Anton Silaev
Cast: Aleksandr Chislov, Seseg Khapasova, Aleksandr Bashirov, Tat’iana Orlova, Dmitrii Blokhin, Mariia Skornitskaia
Producers: Sergei Selianov, Andrei Rydanov
Production: CTB, National Year of Russian Cinema, Fond Kino
Roman Artem’ev: The Man from the Future (Chelovek iz budushchego, 2016)
reviewed by Masha Kisel© 2016