Issue 63 (2019)

Sergei Mokritskii: Rough Draft (Chernovik, 2018)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2019


chernovik Sergei Mokritskii’s fantasy film Rough Draft (Chernovik) depicts the induction of an ordinary protagonist, Kirill Maksimov (played by Nikita Volkov), into a superhuman race who exist invisibly alongside humanity and readily cross the boundaries between parallel worlds.

The film’s narrative is divided by day, locating the viewer before and after the beginning of the film in media res at an apparent crime scene. While the division of the narrative by day later seems somewhat arbitrary, the “day before” effectively introduces Kirill, framing him in the social institutions that define his life just as he is erased from them by an unknown force for an unknown reason. His girlfriend Ania (Ol’ga Borovskaia) quarrels with and then forgets him. A strange woman, some Renata Ivanova (Severija Janušauskaitė) occupies his apartment and everyone, down to his papers and his dog, rejects the idea he ever lived there. At his workplace, a computer game company in Moscow-City that had just the night before feted Kirill as the creative architect of a successful game, no one acknowledges him. His father, a professor at Moscow State University, passes from recognition to blank stare in a flash. Kotia (Evgenii Tkachuk), his colleague who initially leaps to Kirill’s aid in the first hours of this process of erasure, forgets this initial adventure. Even Kirill’s passport forgets him, just as he disappears from all government records. In the process of creating Kirill’s first dilemma, these events effectively define Kirill as a genius “world builder” for whom human relationships are important. Both elements, it would seem, contribute to his ability to navigate the second half of the film.

chernovik Kirill’s trials are explained after, fully erased from his reality, he is led by text message to a tower near Bolotnaia Square, the interiors of which begin to rearrange themselves in accordance with his tastes. The strange woman from his apartment appears and explains that Kirill has been reborn as a “Functional,” an immortal figure with superhuman abilities who contributes to the management of a system comprised of multiple parallel worlds. Kirill’s function is tied to the customs office in the tower, which is a waystation between these parallel worlds. The second half of the film begins with several somewhat unconnected scenes that explore key elements of worldbuilding—backstory, races, geography. The extraordinary Functionals share certain characteristics, such as the ability to heal from all wounds by drinking water. A ruling system constrains them; an amulet the leadership, the Curator, controls limits most Functionals in movement to a radius of no more than a few kilometers from their places of Function on pain of extreme weakening. Parallel worlds have varying relations with each other that Kirill must negotiate; some worlds use other worlds as “rough drafts” to verify the effects of introduced changes.

Rough Draft is based on Sergei Luk’ianenko’s 2005 novel of the same name—the first in a two-part series, followed by Final Draft (Chistovik, 2007). Luk’ianenko also authored Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 1998) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2000), which Timur Bekmambetov adapted to great financial success and international distribution in 2004 and 2006. The return to Luk’ianenko’s novels for source material suggests a search for a similar box office success and the possibility of similar international appeal. The film’s release alongside powerhouse Disney’s Solo: A Star Wars Story (Kuz’min 2018) reflected confidence that Rough Draft could be a domestic hit. However, domestic box office returns were tepid at $3.3 million and at least some critics saw the film as merely a Night Watch knock-off (Litovchenko 2018).

chernovik While models for Rough Draft may be found in the novels and film adaptations of Luk’ianenko from the early 2000s, Mokritskii’s film bears the mark of the cultural turns of the 2010s. Most significantly, where Luk’ianenko’s books focused most strongly on the individual Functional’s relationship to the ruling structures of the Functionals, Mokritskii’s film focuses more strongly on a geopolitical sense of the relations between worlds and the defense of this world, the world Kirill comes from. Mokritskii’s adaptation also reflects on the unique resources this world has to offer in its own defense, as normal humans from Moscow implicitly provide Kirill with the psychic resources to come into his own as an unusually strong Functional and champion of this world.

In the major visual motif of the film, the familiar panorama of the Kremlin from the Bol’shoi Kamenyi Bridge recurs frequently, reimagined in different visual modes. On Kimgim, a world with no oil, steampunk machines surround a Kremlin that continues to be painted white in accordance with Imperial fashions of the nineteenth century. The prison world Nirvana takes on a Stalinist-apocalyptic aesthetic. An uninhabited tropical beach, the Kremlin a jungle-covered ruin in the background, opens for Kirill’s pleasure. Arkan reflects a Kremlin fortified with strong East Asian overtones. These aesthetics map vaguely to a certain sense of contemporary Russian historiography; Imperial Russia is a beautiful utopian scene and the excesses of Stalinism are isolated and personalistic.

chernovikThe constant image of the Kremlin, a building complex that actually operates as a governing center in this world, but which has limited functionality in most other worlds, centers Kirill’s world as the one with which the audience should identify. The outside threat of a competing “empire” of worlds against Russia defines the conflict Kirill must enter. The East Asian influences on the Kremlin in Arkan rapidly become associated with the threat that this world may be similarly subsumed by something alien. It turns out that Arkan conceives of itself as the primary world and that other worlds are its rough drafts and so it has successfully averted all wars, epidemics, and other mistakes those worlds undergo. Reconnected to this world by Kirill, Arkan’s interventions may resume.

In the film’s framing, one of Kirill’s greatest resources is not his Functional immortality or superpowers, but his remaining ties to humanity. The adversary world of Arkan is sterile and mechanical-robotic matreshki, rather than human or Functional individuals, police the world and remove impediments to the world’s order. By contrast, human relationships on this world drive Kirill’s explorations and development as a Functional. Kirill’s ex-girlfriend, Ania, plays a particularly important role in this regard, as they meet and fall in love again following his rebirth. Protecting Ania motivates essentially all of Kirill’s further explorations of the worlds, chivvying the plot along if nothing else.

chernovik Kirill makes two notable trips beyond the limits of the “leash” connecting him to the customs office near the Kremlin: one to his parents, the other to attempt a rescue of Ania. As always in a conceptual geography of Moscow, power lies at the center, at the Kremlin. Unsurprisingly, the weak and vulnerable humans Kirill visits always lie just outside the realm of power. However, it is also not an accident that they are the people who shape Kirill in his previous life, giving him, among other things, his taste for comfortable wallpaper and unpretentious clothing, markers of his lingering humanity. Through their advice, research, and emotions, these humans add wisdom and purpose to his skills, revitalizing the power of the center with the virtues of the periphery and arguably contributing to Kirill’s emergence as one of the strongest Functionals.

Frankly, these human relationships, which Mokritskii and a rather large team of scenarists added to the plot of Luk’ianenko’s novel, come across more effectively than scenes with other Functionals or in other worlds. Kirill’s Functional colleagues seem to behave in an unmotivated fashion that leaves little sense of the shape of Functional life or why they accede to the laws they enforce. Sly winks at the composed nature of the film—echoes of the nondiegetic soundtrack in the diegetic world—and at the futility of human attempts to inscribe their stories, as their recordings paradoxically erase what is recorded, come at the expense of explaining the larger forces at work or even posing them as the longer narrative’s central puzzle. Speculatively, this fantastic dimension may have ended up being too large a departure from the director’s recent métier of historical dramas in Battle of Sevastopol (Bitva za Sevastopol’, 2015) and I am a Teacher (Ia - uchitel′, 2016). The CGI animation of the fantasy scenes and fights seems also to reflect a lack of experience in planning and allocating appropriate resources to computer graphics.

The ending of Rough Draft leaves Kirill’s tower destroyed, this world under threat, and antagonist Functionals only temporarily disabled, in a clear invitation to producers to continue the series.

Elise Thorsen
Independent Scholar

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Works Cited

Kuz’min, Dmitrii. 2018. “‘Khochetsya perepliunut’ «Mstitelei»’.” Interview with Sergei Luk′ianenko. Gazeta.ru. 23 May.

Litovchenko, Aleksei. 2018. “Borschevik fields forever.” Rossiiskaia gazeta. 24 May.

 


Rough Draft, Russia, 2018
Color, 116 minutes
Director: Sergei Mokritskii
Scriptwriter: Denis Kuryshev, Sergei Artimovich, Maksim Budarin, Sergei Mokritskii, Ol’ga Sobenina
DoP: Aleksandr Tananov
Music: Kirill Rikhter
Production Design: Iurii Grigorovich
Editing: Denis Kriuchkov
Cast: Nikita Volkov, Evgenii Tkachuk, Ol′ga Borovskaia, Iuliia Peresil′d, Severija Janušauskaitė, Evgenii Tsyganov
Producers: Natal’ia Mokritskaia, Ul’iana Savel’eva
Production: Novye Liudi, with support from Fond Kino, Yandex Studio, and Rossiya 1 TV Channel

Sergei Mokritskii: Rough Draft (Chernovik, 2018)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2019

Updated: 2019