Abigail (2019)

There are moments when the movie you are watching seems to eerily predict future events.

Consider Abigail: here we have a Russian film released in 2019, set in an alternate, locked-in world, where everyone goes in terror of a mysterious disease which shows no symptoms in the infected.

Not in its earliest stage, at least.

Meanwhile, a group of sinister inspectors in metal masks go around forcing people to submit to the official test (which involves flashing a light in their eyes) and those who have the disease are hauled away and (supposedly) humanely put to death.

However, it should come as no surprise that the disease is actually fake, and it’s all part of a sinister plot by the ruler of this strange city.

As I said, it all sounds eerily familiar.

Even though it was made in 2019.

Ever since Night Watch came out in 2004, there has been a growing surge of Russian-made Science Fiction and fantasy films, which are clearly inspired by big budget American blockbuster films.  Some of them are little more than knockoffs, although even the most routine are often interesting for the different cultural assumptions and biases underlying them.

And you really don’t have to look too far to find the influences here: after all, we have a fantasy film about people with unique, seemingly magical gifts, living secretly among the rest of society, which came out the year after the second Fantastic Beasts movie.  And, yes, this also resembles the world of Night Watch, with its powerful Others — an idea which appears in so many Russian fantasy films these days — except that there is no great, eternal battle between good and evil, light and dark, McCoys and Hatfields or whatever.

But this isn’t a Fantastic Beasts knockoff.  Yes, there is a retro-Thirties-ish sort of feel to the setting (although it might be closer to one of those movies from that era which was set in an imaginary Eastern European country, even if it isn’t a screwball comedy), complete with lovely old cars, period clothing, and a densely realized world packed with all sorts of vintage everyday details.  However, there is also a strong steampunk vibe, with giant airships, and complex mechanical devices used to channel those magical powers.  I suppose I might compare it to the Girl Genius comic, although this is a far less flamboyant sort of world than that of Agatha Heterodyne.

The magic seems a bit more grounded than that in the Harry Potter Universe.  We know that it is something akin to mental gifts which some people have, and they need special devices to harness that power.  These devices have a definite set of rules guiding their construction, and Abigail’s father (who vanished when she was a child) was a brilliant inventor who created many of these devices.

He left a trail of clues for her to follow, but she has no idea what she will find at the end of them.

But she is certain that the other gifted people were wrong when they labelled him a criminal.

Like a lot of other recent Russian films I’ve seen lately, it suffers enormously from an incredibly unexciting and poorly done dub.  I regret not going out and finding a subbed version, but I decided to watch this one because it was up for free on Tubi.

Sometimes you get what you paid for.

Visually, the film is reasonably impressive, although the big CGI settings aren’t up to the Hollywood standard.

But, their locations are far more impressive.  Fortunately, for Russian filmmakers, the Soviet Union left a lot of massive and impressive buildings behind, many of which have just the right Retro-thirties look for a film like this.

On the whole, the effects are well done, and I particularly like the way that the weapons leave long, solid-looking trails behind when they are used.

Although, let’s face it, that fairy doesn’t work at all because it looks so much like bad CGI.

But maybe it’s just more obvious there.  And, for that matter, when we see all the weird things the people with magical talent can do.

Perhaps my most serious grumble about the film (well, after the dubbing…) is that airship.  It actually looks quite good, in a very primitive, pre-World War I sort of way when we first see it sailing past the camera…

Until, that is, we see the big screw…or propeller, or whatever the heck it is supposed to be, at the rear of the ship.  It has four long “paddles” for want of a better word, which are clearly cloth stretched on a frame as you can see the cloth rippling as they turn.

But they just stick out straight from a central shaft.  They don’t spiral, they don’t have an airfoil shape, they’re not even set at an angle.  There is no way that turning that thing could ever produce forward motion.

Oh, well, one does get used to seeing some pretty dumb designs on screen.  But if they’d just left that thing off (and I’ll point out that the airship already has a proper set of propellers) it would have been just fine.

Overall, I’ll confess that I enjoyed this one.  It’s a nice little family friendly adventure story, with a great setting, and an interesting steampunk edge to everything.  Yes, there are better family adventures out there, but they’ve been a bit scarce lately.

And yes, it is nice to see a film with a likeable heroine — and no messaging.

But darn it, try to find a subbed copy.

I’m wishing I had…

(Watch for free on Tubi)

Buy or Watch on Amazon (Paid Link — dubbed version only)

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