By now it should come as no surprise that I have a soft spot for Russian Science Fiction films.
They tend to be darker, smarter and more complex than our American efforts, with a slightly pessimistic outlook on our world which reflects a society which has gone through one disaster after another.
And it probably helps that they have an entirely different set of clichés than we have. That always makes things seem a bit fresher and more original.
Since Attraction we’ve seen a lot of big budget Russian Science Fiction films which are clearly aimed at the same market as our overblown American tentpole films. These have ranged from some which are little more than knock offs, without much to distinguish them from ours (like Guardians) to some which are wildly different, like Sputnik or Koma.
And A Rough Draft clearly fits into that second category.
I suppose a few words are in order about Sergey Lukyanenko.
Now most genre film fans probably won’t recognize to his name. In fact, few people here in the U.S. have actually heard of any Russian Science Fiction and Fantasy authors.
But they probably will remember the two dark fantasy movies based on Sergey’s books: Night Watch and Day Watch.
Night Watch was one of the first really successful big tentpole movies from Russia. However, it is also a very strange dark fantasy with an incredible sense of style and some often bonkers direction from Timur Bekmambetov. A lot of that weirdness — it’s sort of an epic Tolkienian horror action movie — came directly from Sergey Lukyanenko’s novel.
Now the attempt to film the third novel, Dusk Watch, fizzled out, but the two Watch movies weren’t his only books to end up on the big screen: one became the goofy children’s fantasy, Aziris nuna, while this film, A Rough Draft came out in 2018. I’ve also heard rumors that there was a Russian TV movie called Depth based on his cyberpunk stories.
Not that IMDB will actually verify this (if anyone has a copy, let me know using the form on my Wish List).
A Rough Draft is the first book in a trilogy (Sergey likes trilogies, rather than multi-book epics) and I’ll warn you right off that the story hits you with a few stunning revelations then just…ends, leaving several major issues unresolved.
I know that will bother some of you. Particularly as I have no idea whether they’ll actually make a second film.
It starts off with an imaginative young man, Kirill (Nikita Volkov), who designs worlds for videogames, finding a strange woman in his apartment. She claims she’s been there for months, although no one in the building knows her.
Only the apartment has changed completely and Kirill’s dog no longer recognizes him.
He’s forced to take shelter for the night with his friend Kotya: the two learn that all of Kyrill’s papers have been mysteriously voided, and when he goes back to work, no one knows him.
And soon even Kotya forgets him.
It’s a solid buildup for a film that rapidly goes in a completely different direction, as Kyrill ends up on the run, accused of murdering the mysterious woman at his apartment, only to have her show up perfectly healthy the next day at the old tower Kyrill took shelter in the night before.
Which is rapidly reshaping itself into a copy of his apartment.
The tower is actually a custom house, run by a mysterious group of people who can move between various infinite parallel worlds. He’s been chosen by these mysterious people to be the new customs officer, although his real job is to open up doors to new worlds, something that is only possible because of his unique gift of being able to imagine worlds different from our own.
As a customs’ official, Kyrill is now more or less immortal, and finds that he is gaining increased strength, speed and agility. Only he cannot go more than Fifteen Kilometers from his tower, thanks to a device he’s given that saps him of his powers.
Early in the story we are given a focal point for all these new worlds, as Kotya points out one of the towers of the Kremlin and notes that the customs’ tower is the very spot where the picture of Kremlin on an old Ruble note was drawn. Whenever we enter one of these new worlds, the Kremlin tower is there.
There’s a strange little subculture made up of these dimension-hopping tourists. We get tantalizing glimpses of it, as they come through the tower with their various strange cargoes, and when Kyrill goes to a favorite party spot in one of the tourists’ favorite worlds. Most of what they are after seems trivial, geared to luxury tastes rather than necessity.
One of my favorite elements are the giant flying Russian Matryoshka stacking doll robots, with a swiveling body, various jet nozzles, and lots of hinged panels. They are beautiful, impressively convincing — and very nasty, with plenty of lasers and other weapons hidden inside (and a wicked fixed scowl on some of the ones we see later).
Also impressive are the scenes where Kyrill tries to escape his “leash,” only to have his skin turn transparent, revealing bones, eyes and skull beneath. It’s gruesome and quite impressive — and best of all, highly imaginative.
That’s one of the biggest things distinguishing A Rough Draft from your typical American big budget Science Fiction film: it’s loaded with ideas and imagination, with an intricate plot, lots of world-building, some pretty good ideas, and a lot more intelligence.
But then, you expect that from the best Russian Science Fiction.
Which is part of the problem here: these films were made for an audience more intelligent and sophisticated (and knowledgeable about Science Fiction and Fantasy) than the audience Hollywood has in mind for its Blockbusters.
Now I think that Americans aren’t quite as dumb as Hollywood thinks we are, but your average filmgoer, who’s never seen anything more challenging than a Superhero movie might have trouble with this one.
Not that most Science Fiction film buffs are exactly average.
I really liked this one: it’s complex, its plot kept going in unexpected directions and it has a strong central idea which brings the whole movie into focus when we learn the truth. I love the quirky details and the underlying depth of Sergey’s fantasy world.
Which, come to think of it, was one of things I loved about Night Watch.
The central romance is rather undeveloped, which is strange when you consider how central it is. You really never get a clear picture of Kyrill and Anna’s relationship and why it was falling apart at the beginning of the film. But in a film which is a bit less than two hours long, its hard to imagine where they’d have fit it in anyway.
After all, there’s hardly a moment in this film when something isn’t happening.
I’ll admit I’m a little disappointed that the film ended just as the story became clear, secrets were revealed, and Kyrill had new challenges to overcome. Having seen Day Watch, which tied so much in Night Watch together and revealed what the real story had been all along (Nyet!), I have to wonder whether the same might be true here.
So far there is no sequel, although I’ve heard talk that they’re going to follow it with a TV series instead. That could be interesting, even if one tends to feel a bit smug and condescending towards a mere TV show.
But I’ll probably try to watch it. If it ever becomes available here.
Meanwhile, A Rough Draft is available for free on Tubi.
Which effectively removes any excuse you might have for not watching it.
So why wait? It’s definitely worth a look.
Just don’t go too far from your tower…