There’s been a lot of talk of this series from Russia, much saying that it’s the country’s epic to match Matrix and that kind of thing. Well those comments really did fall on their face for me, I mean Matrix is nothing to be compared against. What did interest me was the fact that this was the first big movie out of Russia that I’d heard of since…well since Bronenosets Potyomkin, and really that came about through history not through release.
The first thing you notice about this movie is that the production is high quality, it looks like a Hollywood movie and has plenty of editing effects to make the opening scenes look really good. The opening, in quite an amusing and twisted manner, reminds me of a pivotal scene in The Matrix. However here it takes a dark turn, and I think this is where the movie excels. There are comic and supernatural moments, but it never strays from the overall bleakness of the tale, a dark undercurrent and almost accepting fatality to the whole movie.
There are three areas I really feared for this movie, one is in the effects. I assumed that these would either be poorly executed or created simply and with sleight of camera, I was incredibly wrong. The effects are bold and challenge even the Matrix. There’s no real gimmick here, the stunts and effects are all part of the story, although one scene with the school bus does showcase what the Russian film effects can do, but there’s no real “bullet time” to speak of.
Actually I’m going to stop for a moment and apologise for making these Matrix comparisons and stop right now. The real reason for this is the fact that this is what the Matrix should have been, you can see it all the way through. There’s no huge explanations of what the characters are doing and why, there’s no sequence to the movie of explanation, fight, explanation, effects, fight, and so on. The explanations are minimal and if they are there then they are part of the story and part of the scene. They are often provided visually and you often find yourself referencing back to a moment earlier in the movie for validation, or you would find yourself questioning something only for it to be answered later on. In other words, it’s designed for more intelligent moviegoers than many of the spoon fed Hollywood scripts we see.
This is the next point, I thought the story would either go in the direction of Asian horror or towards a more Dog Soldiers type of horror. Neither is true. The story is very grounded and doesn’t tend to leap into over the top scenes of supernatural beasts. It really does try to keep the story on the level of people, however “super” they may be, and it does this superbly well. The story builds from one man and slowly pans out to the end of the world type plot, a huge and epic tale, all done with great pacing and style. I was really surprised at how good the writing was.
The final point where I thought this movie would fall down is the acting. Having never really seen many Russian movies or actors, I thought the bar couldn’t be too high. I was wrong again. The actors are very natural and seem to be quite seasoned, the lead Konstantin Khabensky is very underplayed. The character is underwhelmed and the performance is stilted and restrained for the most part, overall he’s very engaging onscreen. This kind of natural acting is throughout the movie, there was never any of the major roles that weren’t well played.
The ending of the movie is big, although there’s a huge anti-climax and you find yourself wondering what is going on with the story. The climax is fast and well written, much like the pace of the latter half of the movie and in keeping with the writing style of the whole thing. It’s well placed to end this episode and being the next.
There are some holes in the story though, and the section with the cursed woman does confuse and seems somewhat shortened. There are also some disjointed scenes which are a little confusing, decisions that seem a little too easily made, and the rocket powered bus was just a little too twee for me.
One other thing I have to mention about this (apart from the amusing Buffy appearance) are the subtitles. I know that not everyone can cope with subtitles to foreign films, although for the life of me I don’t understand why, but here there is something really clever done to the subtitles. They are treated as part of the movie, as part of the visuals, and have effects and a style all of their own but connected with the scenes they are in. Sure, you’ll see the standard subtitles, but they’ll be framed with the picture, or coloured and have effects to match the scene and mood, the vampire calling ones being the best.
Go see this movie in the cinema, it’s big and very epic, and is only the beginning. – The second and third movies are in production as we write\read – The effects are superb, and it’s just brimming with style. This is the great Russian trilogy, and it’s another Hollywood wake up call.