This is a remarkably beautiful film.
It is, of course, a Russian attempt at making the sort of big budget, big effects SF we’ve been making here in the US lately. And, again, of course, it should come as no surprise that it is quite different from the American product.
Which is just fine in my book.
In a future Earth where science has made us all physically perfect and eliminated all strife, one feckless young man is still going out on Free Search Group missions rather than settling down and getting serious about life. However a meteor shower damages his ship and he crashes on a previously unknown planet ruled by a totalitarian government.
Somehow, one might read the introduction’s talk about better life through science (and the Great Theory of Upbringing) as the sort of glowing Communist Future that used to be the setting for most Soviet SF movies. However, it tells us that young earthlings are “brave, strong and naive” and concludes with the statement, “They think they are capable of everything.”
Which is somewhat less glowing.
Inhabited Island was based on a series of novels by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, who may very well be the most adapted SF writers in the history of film, even if their work has only appeared sporadically in the West. They wrote during the last, crumbling days of the Evil Empire, when no one much believed in Communism anymore and it was possible to criticize society as long as you hid behind the excuse that you were talking about some fictional world.
And of course, it can’t possibly be that the totalitarian government here – which is ruled by a unknown cabal who claim to be looking out for everyone’s best interests, while at the same time arranging a series of non-stop wars and brainwashing everyone into doing what they want – is meant to be the Soviet Union.
Not a chance.
On the whole, it is a lot like the American action movies that are its model, although far more thoughtful than most of them (even if the fans of the novels tend to be a bit grumpy because it didn’t do the philosophical elements of the story justice. But, hey, they’re Russian. They expect their SF to be smart).
The design of the film is also outstanding, starting with a truly unique squid-like spaceship with rotating tentacles and offering us a grungy, retro-futuristic world with some quite impressive design work (I particularly liked the car one of the officials drives, with its wild, edgy bodywork and six wheels).
It does end on a downbeat, as our hero “Mak Sim” (i.e., “Maxim”) goes off into the wasteland to continue his quest. But no worries, Fedor Bondarchuk also directed a sequel (I suspect, like The Lord of the Rings, as a single big movie) which also came out in 2009.
And yes, I plan to catch up with it as soon as I have the time.
After all, there just aren’t that many thoughtful action movies out there.
(For more SF movies from behind the Iron Curtain, see here.)