Issue 71 (2021)

Egor Baranov: The Blackout (Avanpost, 2019)

reviewed by Lars Kristensen © 2021

avanpost

Egor Baranov is a prolific filmmaker, making both TV series as well as feature films. He is also a genre equilibrist, equally at home in comedy, crime or horror, as Suicide (Samoubiitsy, 2012) and the Gogol trilogy (2017-2018) have shown. Now, with The Blackout (Avanpost, 2019), he has with the same kind of cinematic eagerness turned his attention towards science fiction, but with a blander result. Where Suicide had ironic distance to the feat of committing collective suicide, and the trilogy about Gogol and his detective pursuits into his own story world had a level of intellectual cleverness—as was noted by the KinoKultura reviewer (Corney 2018), The Blackout, unfortunately, lacks such depth or ingenuity.

The Blackout is classified as a stylish Cyberpunk-action film, but it feels more like a classical action movie (boevik). As with the Gogol films, The Blackout was envisioned as a series rather than as a feature film, and as such might serve as an example of the inverse distribution system of movies, where small screens are turning into big screen platforms and streaming platforms are producing material for the big cinematic screen. The Blackout fits as a platform film and is shown in a dubbed version on major international screening sites. Building on the commercial success of the Gogol films, The Blackout targets foreign audiences, which is not uncommon for science-fiction films from the periphery. With regards to transnational Sci-Fi films, Ewa Mazierska and Alfredo Suppia (2016: 14) argue in their edited volume Red Alert that “these films travel well across the globe, often becoming objects of worldwide cult.” However, they also warn that such transnational potential can become hollow by a hegemonic film industry, which seems to be the case with The Blackout. It is not likely to become a worldwide cult hit.

avanpostThe “red alert” is where the film begins. Red rotating lamps in the ceiling of a tunnel, a soldier running to their outpost and a commanding officer shouting “faster, faster!” Red is the color of alert. Alien objects are approaching a heavily fortified compound and the soldiers are told to shoot to kill whatever turns up in their Google-glasses AR crosshairs, which, by the way, also glow red. Red lasers from the soldiers’ guns point toward the dark blue forest. The film suddenly cuts to a futuristic Moscow one month earlier. Moscow is drenched in light blue neon, reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which suggests that the filmmakers of The Blackout know both color techniques and film history. In fact, there are references to a whole host of different films—from the more obvious, like Scott’s Prometheus (2012), to the more obscure, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962). But these references do not help the film much.  

Despite the complexity of various incoherent smoke screens, the plot of The Blackout is rather simple. An advance party of an alien species arrived on Earth 200,000 years ago, and of this group, only Id (Artem Tkachenko) and Ra (Kirill Vlasov) remain. Their own sun was about to collapse and they had to colonize another planetary system. Id and Ra created the humans—in their image, only without special powers—to maintain the planet while waiting for the arrival of the remaining aliens. These millions of aliens have travelled on a slower, but bigger, spaceship, and they arrive tomorrow.

In order to prepare for the colonization of Earth, Id has incapacitated all living things and disabled all electricity on Earth through radiation. However, a circle over Moscow, including parts of Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia and Finland, was in the shadow of the moon and thus not affected. 160 million people from the quarantined zone are biologically woken up and, but now enslaved by Ra, who intends to use them to invade Russia.

avanpostThe film’s alien-invasion plot is packaged in the story of two different soldiers, Oleg (Aleksei Chadov) and Iura (Petr Fedorov), who, together with their two love interests, Olga (Svetlana Ivanova) and Alena (Luker’ia Il’iashenko), a journalist and military doctor respectively, are our last defense against the alien colonization. It is up to the Russian military to save the world and the human race. Several times throughout the film, we have big heroic soldiers getting wounded, their bodies penetrated by sharp objects, which, through much pain, they pull out and continue fighting to the bitter end. Big, graphic explosions, Boston Dynamics-like robot-dogs, laser-pointing gun systems mowing down rebellious civilians, close combat knife-fights with homeless people, digital blood splashing at every impact of a bullet: these are parts of the film that are meant to be “cool” and spectacular, but which never become engaging. Spiced up with dialogue such as “it’s been an honor serving with you” and “you have to make sacrifices to win a war,” the result is a fetishization of violence and military paraphernalia, which might appeal to certain audiences, but which leaves a bad aftertaste. For me, it is pointless army blather more suited to a Russian army recruitment film than an independent feature film.

The Blackout celebrates a clear right-wing view of war and militarism, as Pavel Voronkov also points out in his review (Voronkov 2019). Through the dispute between Id and Ra, it is explained that the human race is made stronger through war, that this is what humans are engineered to do—kill each other. Love and compassion, on the other hand, were installed in us humans as a religion, something from metaphysics and not at all part of our genetics.

avanpostMost of the characters are underdeveloped as they move in and out of the story line, only to reappear at certain crucial points, but the two male heroes have potential for an interesting conflict between conservative and traditional soldiering to modern opportunist conscription. Oleg comes from a rich family with a long military history. His father has a factory in Samara but previously served in the army; his brother was killed in Syria and his mother hates all military because of that. He is following the family tradition of being a soldier, yet his career choice means he is going against his mother’s wishes. Not living up to his father is his inner fear.

Iura is the opposite of Oleg. He is a cab driver who lives in a small, cramped apartment with his demented mother. He is drafted into the army, and, as he explains to journalist Olga, this war has given him a goal in life, a meaningful objective that was absent from his civilian life. He can make a difference here, as he says, which is the standard argument of an army advertisement. The army makes men equal. However, Iura lacks empathy. He does not care for people he does not know or love; instead, he thinks, it is rather “cool” that he is one of the chosen ones—one in a thousand.

avanpostNeedless to say, it is Iura who has a crucial character flaw. Iura defends Id and his colonization of the Earth; he accepts his own enslavement to the aliens (“we are already dead” is a tagline that follows him) and has no concerns about subordinating himself to the new master. Oleg wins the buddy-feud with Iura with help from Olga, who shoots Iura, showing that love is a fleeting thing of faith that one can fall out of. “We are all going to die,” are Iura’s last words, as the surviving trio (Oleg, Olga and Alena) board the ship and kill all the aliens, who are asleep in their sarcophagi. Only the alien-children are spared death. Oleg puts down his gun; he is now the only male left on earth, with two female sidekicks and a horde of mouth-less children in jumpsuits. What more can a traditional Russian army hero ask for?

The soundtrack “Fine” (2019), by Mike Shinoda, with its refrain “Everything’s gonna be fine,” has perhaps made the transition from traditional Russian boevik into peripheral science-fiction thriller easier but, as it plays over images of riot police beating up protesters and as commentators are talking about the chaos caused by panicking, looting and revolt—a chaos that is worse than the 1990s—what is it exactly that is going to be fine? According to the Rolling Stone magazine, Shinoda felt that “the tense and unsettling nature of the film” resonated with him (Blistein 2019). But to me there is something eerie about the refrain and the images of revolting demonstrators getting beaten up. That said, certainly, the synchronization of the English dubbing was made easier with alien monsters that have no mouth as well as with cliché-filled dialogue that is transferrable into any language.

There is no need for flag swapping anymore, as there was when Roger Corman remade famous Soviet Sci-Fi films into American B-movies. Hegemony looks the same anywhere, so who cares about flags? Furthermore, the mysterious alien zone, which was so memorably explored by the Strugatsky brothers and in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), is here the rest of the world, from which infected people have to be eliminated, as in a first-person shooter (which is surely already in production). The final parts of the film are like watching Sergei Eisenstein’s famous Odessa steps scene in The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925), only from a reversed point of view. The good guys in The Blackout are the soldiers shooting at people who are enslaved by foreign agents.

Lars Kristensen,
University of Skövde

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Works Cited

Blistein, Jon. 2019. “Hear Mike Shinoda’s Riveting, Tense New Song ‘Fine’.” Rolling Stone, 1 November.

Corney, Frederick C. 2018. “Egor Baranov: Gogol. The Beginning (Gogol’. Nachalo, 2017),” KinoKultura 60.

Mazierska, Ewa and Alfredo Suppia (eds). 2016. Red Alert: Marxist Approaches to Science Fiction Cinema, Detroit: Wayne State University.

Voronkov, Pavel. 2019. “Breduschii po lezviyu: ‘Avanpost’ – nudnyi russkii kiberpank.” Gazeta.ru 19 November.


The Blackout, Russia, 2019
Color, 153 minutes
Director: Egor Baranov
Scriptwriter: Il’ia Kulikov
DoP: Iurii Korobeinikov, Sergei Trofimov
Production Design: Grigorii Pushkin
Music: Ryan Otter
Editing: Aleksander Ivanov, Igor’ Otdel’nov
Cast: Petr Fedorov, Aleksei Chadov, Svetlana Ivanova, Luker’ia Il’iashenko, Konstantin Lavronenko, Kseniia Kutepova, Iura Borisov, Sergei Godin, Filipp Avdeev, Il’ia Malanin, Artem Tkachenko, Kirill Vlasov
Producers: Valerii Fedorovich, Evgenii Nikishov
Production: 1-2-3 Production, TNT-TV network
Distribution (RF) Karoprokat

Egor Baranov: The Blackout (Avanpost, 2019)

reviewed by Lars Kristensen © 2021

Updated: 2021