Issue 26 (2009)

Fedor Bondarchuk: The Inhabited Island, Parts 1 and 2 (Obitaemyi ostrov, 2008 and Obitaemyi ostrov: Skhvatka, 2009)

reviewed by Muireann Maguire © 2009

ostrovFedor Bondarchuk’s two-part film The Inhabited Island tackles three simultaneous challenges: the reinvention of a classic science fiction novel as a mainstream blockbuster, the convincing depiction of an imaginary planet; and the justification of an eyebrow-raising outlay of $40 million, quadruple the cost of Bondarchuk’s previous film The Ninth Company (Deviataia rota, 2005). While Russian audience figures leave a lot to be desired with box office grossing of $21 million for Part I and a meager $6 million for Part II (Box Office MOJO), Bondarchuk’s often minutely accurate recreation of Boris and Arkadii Strugatskii’s 1968 book (also The Inhabited Island) both fulfils and exceeds the original authors’ narrative. Like all film-makers approaching the Strugatskiis’ novels, Bondarchuk has first to grapple with Andrei Tarkovskii’s ghost: Solaris and Stalker have predisposed viewers to expect complex, reflective adaptations of science fiction. Although The Inhabited Island shares subject material with Tarkovskii’s films—including irradiated wastelands, mutants, mysterious weapons and divergent realities—Bondarchuk rejects Tarkovskii’s philosophical approach in favor of high-intensity action. Unlike Tarkovskii, Bondarchuk defiantly embraces technology, packing his film with futuristic vehicles, tanks, multi-megaton explosions and heavy-calibre guns. Stalker and Solaris create timeless dystopias: in The Inhabited Island, Bondarchuk drags the twenty-second century—the Strugatskii brothers’ ‘Noon World’ galaxy—kicking and screaming into the twenty-first.

ostrovThe Inhabited Island opens in 2157 as Maksim Kammerer (Vasilii Stepanov), a footloose space-cruising youngster from an advanced galactic civilization, crash-lands his ship on an unknown planet, Saraksh. Saraksh—also the name of the continent and the nation where Maksim finds himself—is home to a very unusual civilization, whose inhabitants are convinced that they live on the inner surface of a vast sphere. This delusion is fostered by a peculiarity of their atmosphere which hides the stars and makes the horizon appear convex (ingeniously replicated by computer graphics). In recent history, a nuclear war between Saraksh and its nearest neighbors, Khonti and the Island Empire, has left huge tracts of land poisoned by radiation and entire populations, the so-called “mutants,” genetically damaged. From Saraksh’s capital, a council of anonymous leaders—the Unknown Fathers—exert dictatorial control over every aspect of civil life, aided by an elite army corps, the Guards, and a system of towers spread over the entire nation. The towers’ official function is to repel ballistic weapons; in reality, they blanket Saraksh in mind-bending radiation. For the huge majority of citizens, this radiation blocks their capacity for logical thought, suppressing resistance to the all-pervading government propaganda. For a tiny minority, the so-called “degenerates,” high doses of this radiation produce disabling agony. Twice a day, at fixed times, the towers broadcast the rays intensively, stimulating paroxysms of blind patriotism in the majority and—among the “degenerates”—unbearable pain.

ostrovOn Saraksh, the blond, athletic, naively cheerful Maxim is immediately taken for either a lunatic or a mutant. His cheerful insistence that he comes from “up there,” “from Earth,” convince doctors that he must be irrevocably mad, since their cosmology excludes the existence of either space or stars. Tests reveal that Maksim, unlike Saraksh’s people, has no sensitivity whatsoever to the artificial radiation produced by the towers. Meanwhile, a mysterious individual called the Wanderer (Aleksei Serebriakov)—one of the Unknown Fathers—sends a minion, Fank, to collect Maxim from the testing centre. Fank (Andrei Merzlikin) exhibits an unintentionally comical, White Rabbit-like preoccupation with his watch throughout the film; this is because, as a “degenerate,” he dreads exposure in a public place during the radiation boosts. Unfortunately, due to a roadblock, this is exactly what occurs. To Maksim’s bewilderment, Fank suddenly collapses in agony on the driver’s seat, while baying citizens drag him out of the car. Soon lost in the crowd, Maksim wanders off to explore the city, and meets Rada Gaal (Iulia Snigir), the beautiful and sympathetic sister of Gai Gaal (Petr Fedorov), the soldier who originally brought him to the city. Gai, who has just been promoted into the Guards, Saraksh’s elite troops, welcomes the homeless stranger into their flat and even sponsors him to join the Guards. Maksim and Rada fall in love, while Gai and Maksim develop a strong mutual respect despite their diverging ethical—and astronomical—viewpoints. Maksim rejects the state’s representation of the “degenerates” as rebels and moral cripples, especially after he joins a Guards raid on a private flat and discovers that these so-called murderers and conspirators are simply intellectuals and ordinary professionals disenchanted with the regime. Unfortunately for Maksim’s Guards career, the sadistic Lieutenant Chachu (Mikhail Evlanov) takes a special interest in the new recruit’s development and sets him the Guards’ infamous “blood test” by commanding him to shoot a woman prisoner, a “degenerate” convicted for sedition. Maksim deliberately allows the woman to escape and resigns from the Guards, telling Gai to leave with him. Chachu responds by shooting Maksim four times at close range in the chest, leaving him for dead.

ostrovThanks to his enhanced physiology, Maksim recovers rapidly. The remainder of the narrative follows his journey around the ethical compass of Saraksh. After helping an underground cell of ‘degenerate’ rebels blow up one of the radiation towers, Maxim realizes their struggle is hopeless and their command structure is riddled with double agents. Recaptured and sent to the far south to join convicts sweeping the woods for mines and weapons left from the last war, Maxim makes two important friends—Zef and the Boar (played by Sergei Garmash and Gosha Kutsenko respectively), both “degenerates” whose lives have been destroyed by the regime. After repairing and stealing an automated tank, Maksim heads farther south to the nuclear wastelands where he hopes to recruit the mutants in a rebellion against the Unknown Fathers. On the way, he is stopped by a military post commanded by Gai—and manages to kidnap him, carrying the former Guardsman south, beyond the influence of the thought rays. When the mutants turn out to be gentle and vulnerable, unable to help Maksim militarily, they suggest he goes to the Island Empire for aid, and even give him an abandoned bomber plane to make the journey easier. Shot down off the coast by an anti-aircraft barrage, Maksim and Gai discover a wrecked white submarine—a fragment of a former Island Empire invasion force. When they go on board, they discover records of atrocities indicating that the Island Empire is even more depraved and vicious than the Unknown Fathers’ regime. Despairing at last, both men surrender to the Saraksh army, only to be immediately conscripted in a new war of annihilation against Saraksh’s neighbors. Attempts by the Wanderer and Fank to capture Maksim are constantly frustrated—or subverted by the scheming Procurator (played by Bondarchuk himself), another highly placed “degenerate” who wants to use the towers’ thought-control to guarantee his own supremacy.

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There are so many ethical issues embedded in The Inhabited Island that they resist a single Aesopian interpretation (although this did not stop the Russian Communist Party from condemning the film this year and urging parents not to give their children money to see it; see Livsi). Charismatic and spontaneous, Maxim is a natural hero: but, like a twenty-second-century Candide, his naïve convictions create more problems than they solve, involving those he loves in a string of disasters. His determination to destroy the nexus of the radiation towers, in order to fatally undermine the Unknown Fathers, is based on a hopelessly shallow understanding of Saraksh’s power structure and of human nature. Vasilii Stepanov, in his debut role as Maxim, satisfied even Boris Strugatskii as the ideal personification of his hero’s goodness, honesty and indestructible innocence (Livsi interview). Strugatskii had then seen only the first, sunnier part of The Inhabited Island:whether Stepanov achieves the depth necessary to convey the gradual darkening and twisting of Maxim’s personality in the second part is doubtful. More than temporary tantrums and tears are required to convey Maxim’s psychological journey from tyro to terrorist. (Stepanov, incidentally, is dubbed for the entire film due to a problem pronouncing his r’s; see Kussmaa).Iuliia Snigir’ beautifully inhabits a rather limited role as Rada, the woman whose love anchors Maxim to Saraksh, even after he has the opportunity to leave. Petr Fedorov is excellent in the deceptively complex role of Gai Gaal, the career officer whose friendship with Maxim involves him in insuperable conflicts between loyalties. Aleksei Serebriakov is smolderingly sinister as the Wanderer, whose reserve and mystique contrasts sharply with the opulence represented by the power-hungry Procurator. Bondarchuk excels in the role of this sybaritic official, whose attention to luxury extends even to the silver tongue protector he places in his mouth before the fit induced by each twice-daily radiation boost.

ostrovIn general, Bondarchuk’s use of close-up detail is ingenious: the range of costumes, different for every social class in Saraksh society, is particularly inventive. But the film is marred by a sense of repetitiousness: if not diegetic, then from recent classics of the sci-fi genre. Panoramic views of Saraksh’s capital and tracking shots of its street life fail to convince: there is too much pastiche from previous science fiction blockbusters, such as George Lucas’s Galactic Republic in the Star Wars (1977) franchise and Ridley Scott’s futuristic Los Angeles in Blade Runner (1982). Zoomed frames of the capital’s central tower echo the Dark Tower from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) so unmistakably that the viewer half-expects to see a malign red eye spinning on its axis over Saraksh. The cave scene from Maxim’s interview with the mutants, with its supernatural voices, recalls Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and its sequel Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006). The military set pieces, while impressive, similarly lack originality.

Bondarchuk prides himself on his fidelity to the Strugatskiis’ text: many scenes from the film were built up from illustrations to an early edition of The Inhabited Island. For the screenplay, Bondarchuk hired first the multiply eminent screenwriter Eduard Volodarskii and later the Kiev-based husband-and-wife team of fantasy writers, Sergei and Marina D’iachenko. However, the dialogue rarely deviates from the Strugatskiis’ text and, when it does, loses some of the original subtlety. Part of Maksim’s charm, for the reader as for the natives of Saraksh, lies in his initial inability to speak their language; although his enhanced learning techniques ensure that he is fluent within a few weeks, in those early days his ideas are formulated in the simplest, truest terms: “Please don’t,” “Gai is a good man.” In Bondarchuk’s version, Maksim inserts a pill that is apparently a universal translator into his ear, gaining instant and somehow incredible fluency. When he then reverts to the childlike simplicity of the Strugatskiis’ dialogue during his meeting with Rada, it rings false. Similarly, in the book, the culminating fight between the Wanderer and Maksim is unequal; Maksim is about to give the coup de grâce when the Wanderer reveals his true identity. Bondarchuk, unfortunately, uses this scene for a prolonged and unconvincing martial arts battle between the two men. His scenario sustains the Wanderer’s villainous profile for so long that the sentimental smile Serebriakov produces in the final scene is about as convincing as a sunflower in a nuclear winter. As Dmitrii Bykov has noticed, the final frame acknowledges Tarkovskii’s iconic conclusion of Solaris (Soliaris, 1972); as the camera zooms out, Maksim, Rada and the Wanderer are revealed to be on the inside surface of the planet Saraksh, defying both common-sense and the universal truths in which Maxim has invested so much faith (Bykov).

ostrovThe Inhabited Island is already the most successful mainstream Russian science-fiction film in history, and Bondarchuk may feel that he has successfully laid Tarkovskii’s ghost. However, his success implies another kind of indebtedness. The Ninth Company may have been the first major Russian-produced Afghan War movie, but it was clearly derivative of a long line of American coming-of-age war movies, including Platoon (dir. Oliver Stone, 1986) and Full Metal Jacket (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1987). Similarly, The Inhabited Island has broken the mould of Strugatskii interpretation, at the cost of slotting the film into place behind a long list of big-budget action thrillers and home-grown boeviki.The Strugatskiis’ science fiction is not intrinsically art-house, but its messages are cerebral, elusive, and ultimately delusive: such in-built evasiveness melds awkwardly with the paint-by-numbers predictability of an action thriller. Bondarchuk’s The Inhabited Island never fails to entertain, but one suspects that all its meticulously designed set pieces and high-tech paraphernalia overshadow, rather than enhance, the Strugatskiis’ delicate conundrum of life lived on an inside-out world.

Muireann Maguire

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Works Cited

Box Office MOJO

Bykov, Dmitrii, “Vognutyi mir,” Ogonek 39 (22-28 September 2008).

Kuusmaa, Anna, “Gollivudskii debiut prostogo russkogo Vasi,” interview with Vasilii Stepanov in, 31 December 2008.

Livsi, Elena, “Boris Strugatskii: ‘Vtoroi raz smotret’ Obytaemyi ostrov bylo dazhe interesnee’,” interview in Komsomolskaia pravda, 12 January 2009.

The Inhabited Island, Russia, 2008 and 2009
Color, 115 minutes (Part I), 100 minutes (Part II)
Director: Fedor Bondarchuk
Scriptwriter: Eduard Volodarskii, Marina D’iachenko, Sergei D’iachenko, based on the novel of the same title by the Strugatskii brothers
Cast: Vasilii Stepanov, Iulia Snigir’, Petr Fedorov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Sergei Garmash, Iurii (Gosha) Kutsenko, Aleksei Serebriakov
Producer: Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Sergei Mel’kumov
Production: Art Pictures Studio, СТС, Non-Stop Production

Fedor Bondarchuk: The Inhabited Island, Parts 1 and 2 (Obitaemyi ostrov, 2008 and Obitaemyi ostrov: Skhvatka, 2009)

reviewed by Muireann Maguire © 2009

Updated: 06 Oct 09