Issue 53 (2016)

Dmitrii Grachev, The Calculator (Vychislitel’, 2014)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2016

vychislitelIn his new sci-fi melodrama, Dmitrii Grachev brings together two Russian stars, Evgenii Mironov and Anna Chipovskaia, British actor Vinnie Jones, and desolate landscapes of Iceland. The international cast and filming locations familiar to the global viewer from such sci-fi and fantasy productions as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) and Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (2013) suggest that producers and director aspired to make a feature for global distribution. Grachev actually shot The Calculator at exactly the same locations where Kosinski filmed his Oblivion and where Darren Aranofsky filmed his blockbuster Noah (2014). It seems that the creators of The Calculator have achieved their goals at least partly: the film was released not only in Russia, but also in Germany, France, Italy, and Japan (IMDb). The film, however, did not meet many of the targets set by its creators. Initially Channel Russia considered producing a four-part mini-series for television broadcast. Eventually the channel cancelled these plans, and the mini-series turned into a film for theatrical release. Distributed in Russia and other CIS nations by Central Partnership, The Calculator earned a disappointing $768,352 and returned producers only a fraction of the $2.2 million they had spent on the film’s production.

The Calculator is Grachev’s debut in the genre of sci-fi. Previously he specialized in the production of romantic comedies (Wedding At Any Cost [Nevesta liuboi tsenoi, 2009], Wedding by Exchange [Svad’ba po obmenu, 2011]). Despite his considerable experience in telling escapist stories of courtship culminating in utopian wedding ceremonies, the filmmaker is by no means a novice in filming narratives about human suffering, rich in special effects and set in desolate locations. In 2013 Grachev worked as a second-unit director for Fedor Bondarchuk’s war epic Stalingrad. From re-creating a nightmarish cityscape of a famous World War II battle, Grachev and his producer Bondarchuk moved to an equally dystopian, albeit more hi tech and electronically enhanced, totalitarian future.

vychislitelThe film is set on planet XT-59, policed by ruthless guards, who do the bidding of the planet’s President, a soulless totalitarian computer without human emotions. The totalitarian rule is based on mass political terror and ubiquitous surveillance. All law-abiding citizens dwell in “the Exemplary City,” surrounded by swamps, inhabited by monsters who reside beneath the surface and rise above it only to snatch a new prey. The protagonist Erwin Kahn (played by Mironov) is a former President’s advisor. His claim to fame is the idea to replace capital punishment with exile to the planet’s swamps, where convicts perish anyway, being devoured by monsters, only their sufferings are more elaborate. The President follows Kahn’s advice and abolishes the death sentence in order to create a humanitarian façade for the XT-59’s regime. In the film, it is not clear why the regime even wants to run any public relations campaigns to improve its reputation. The President and his vicious guards control the entire planet anyway. In Alexander Gromov’s short novel, on which the film is based, it becomes clear that the planet used to be part of the interplanetary federation of the League of Free Worlds but turned into a realm of dictatorship and isolated itself. The XT-59 leadership would love to maintain some pretense of legitimacy, perhaps for economic or political reasons. For present-day Russian viewers, extraterrestrial explanations about dismantling democratic institutions and a police state, trying to come across as a benign force, are somewhat redundant. They are intimately familiar with how the police state operates, in particular how it runs cynical public relations campaigns.

vychislitelThe film begins when Kahn, also known as the Calculator, is exiled to the planet’s swamps himself and ironically has to experience the punishment he has invented for others. Together with nine other convicts he has to learn to survive amidst the swamps and monsters of the hostile XT-59. The omniscient and rational Calculator sets his goal to reach the legendary Isles of Happiness and eventually beat the regime that rules the planet. The other alpha male in the group, Yust van Borg has more modest goals. He plans to reach Rotten Gravelbar, inhabited by surviving exiles, who support themselves by cannibalism, and establish himself as one of the local gang leaders. Yust is played by Jones, a former soccer player who specializes in playing enforcers, assassins, and death row inmates. Jones usually displays his oversized body and aggressive demeanor and in many films is written as a mute character or a villain of few lines and a lot of action. In The Calculator the filmmaker does not use Jones to his full potential: instead of performing violent male hysteria, Jones’ character argues a lot with Erwin and even attempts to think and reason in his dialogues with other characters.

vychislitelAs soon as the guards release the convicts, they split into two groups. All but one stay with the violent Yust, while the most attractive female Kristi (played by Anna Chipovskaia) sticks with Erwin and provides voiceover explanations for the viewers when the filmmaker cannot connect the plot visually. Erwin and his sidekick Kristi set off on a Tarkovskian journey of self-discovery, while Yust and his minions trail behind, following the futile, but graphic, path of self-destruction.

The two groups constantly run into each other and engage in violent skirmishes because the Isles of Happiness and the Rotten Gravelbar are somehow located next to each other. Every death in Yust’s team is an occasion to display the film crew’s computer graphics skills. Digitally-generated monsters--the Pagan and the Sargasso Mushroom--grab, devour, and suck life from vaguely familiar characters. Apart from the three main characters, the rest are hardly introduced to viewers and, according to the viewers’ comments on and, the viewers cannot tell one secondary character from another, and at times identify more with monsters who successfully capture human prey, than with their hapless biological compatriots, who fail the game of survival of the fittest.

It is hard to say whether the film is a hard or soft science fiction film. It does not concern itself with scientific accuracy of depicting life on a different planet under a different stage of technological development as hard sci-fi narratives would do. The only thing that is clear, to rephrase a television cameraman from Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1979): in the future there will be no books or theater or movies, only malicious computers. And those computers will boss humans around. At the same time, we hardly see the narrative’s concern with social implications of technological changes, characteristic of soft science fiction narratives. Apart from the fact that XT-59 is run by the computer-dictator, we know very little about the planet’s social organization. We only see the swamps, where exiles struggle with monsters and are randomly killed by an occasional patrol spaceship sent by the President.

vychislitelErwin’s journey of self-discovery boils down to a revelation that, despite him having the most powerful biological mind on XT-59 (he even tricks the computer-dictator), he needs a mate for whom he develops irrational thoughts and sexual desire. When they reach a one-seat spaceship that can take Erwin to the Isles of Happiness, in a paroxysm of self-sacrifice he offers Kristi to take a trip on her own and leave him behind. Luckily the existential dilemma resolves itself without conflict when they squeeze their bodies into a single seat of the spaceship and escape the malicious computers, monsters and inhospitable climate of the Iceland-looking planet XT-59.

As in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), the journey of self-discovery is a male privilege in the film. Unfortunately, this is the only similarity between The Calculator and the art-house sci-fi classics from the 1970s. The fact that Kristi provides occasionally voiceover comments to push the film’s plot forward hardly endows her with any agency in the film. Kristi finds her man closer to the beginning of the story and does not need to perform any brain activity anymore, apart from looking pretty and following her mate. From time to time we hear Kristi’s deep thoughts. For example, when Yust carries wounded Erwin in his hands, she regrets that no man ever carried her in his hands during her short life. At best, Kristi witnesses and confirms verbally Erwin’s greatness. Occasionally harassed by monsters or cannibals, Kristi ends up playing a damsel in distress, while Erwin turns into a prince in shining armor. Next to powerful and independent female leads from Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters, such as Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games 2012), Kristi looks like an archaic double of June Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver 1957), engaged in sartorial experiments with Star Trek-style costumes. 

vychislitelFinally, the film claims to be a literary adaptation of Aleksandr Gromov’s eponymous novel (2000) but the relationship between the novel and the film is at most tenuous. This concerns above all the film’s setting. In the novel the dystopian planet is called Khliab’ (a swampy abyss), and this setting is essential for the author’s goal to depict the human condition as an experience of dragging oneself through unstable and treacherous quagmire. While the film’s characters mention from time to time the impassable swamps, the filmmaker has a hard time depicting a convincing marsh amidst volcanic rocks and ashes of Iceland. There are very few scenes where swamps are even present, and characters’ crossing and/or drowning is done poorly. Sand and rock dominate the film’s diegetic world, making it look barren and sterile, and characters have to mention quagmires verbally to pledge faithfulness to the film’s literary source.

Many reviewers wrote that The Calculator is a disappointment or even a failure. But I beg to differ. Mironov’s and Chipovskaia’s acting is good. The special effects are credible. They just do not come together into a coherent sci-fi narrative yet. However, as one of my mentors told me many times: “You have to code it wrong in order to figure out how to do it right.” Grachev’s film is one of these pieces of “wrong code” that might help his colleagues, or even him, to make successful sci-fi films in the future.

Alexander Prokhorov
College of William & Mary

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The Calculator, Russia, 2014
Color, 122 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Grachev
Screenplay: Dmitrii Grachev, Aleksandr Gromov, Andrei Kutuza
Cinematography: Ivan Gudkov
Cast: Anna Chipovskaia, Vinnie Jones, Evgenii Mironov, Nikita Panfilov, Kirill Kozakov, Nikita Panfilov, Ivan Verkhovykh,
Producers: Fedor Bondarchuk, Aleksei Kurenkov, Dmitrii Mednikov
Production: Art Pictures Studio

Dmitrii Grachev, The Calculator (Vychislitel’, 2014)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2016

Updated: 04 Jul 16