09 March 2009

Movie Review - Inhabited Island part 1 (2008)

I was very interesting to see this film since I am a big fan of the book by Strugatsky Brothers, on which this movie is based, and I've read it many times.

The novel is not a stand alone story, but part of the entire universe created by Strugatsky. Many characters in this universe appear in other books, many events are referenced in different novels. It was so complex and rich, that anthologies of the Strugatsky's universe were created by other writers, describing the chronology and the important points of their fictional world.

Inhabited Island is different from other novels in the sense of the story type. It has entertaining story written very visually, making it suitable for cinematic adaptation.
The novel, struck me with it's imagination and very provocative political content, and despite being released back in 1969, the story somehow is destined to be relevant for a long time.
It is not very clear to me how Soviet censorship even approved such material. Maybe because the story happens on a different planet, or maybe because the content seemed on the first glance like political critique of the Nazism and of Capitalist society, but no one today can miss direct and not very subtle reference toward Soviet ruling party and the condemning message of any totalitarian regime. I guess Soviet censors just couldn't see themselves that way, in their eyes the communist and social reality was the complete opposite of the world described in the novel.
Strugatsky brothers also covered themselves in very clever way, creating truly Utopian Earth, where communism and socialism has prevailed. And since the Earth is described as socialist, that was enough for censors to completely ignore everything else.

The reading experience of the novel is top notch, interesting and involving every time you read it, and although it cannot be compared to Bulgakov's work in terms of use of the language and the plot structure, but as sci-fi fiction it's one of the most compelling works I've read.

This is why I was very disturbed and had many doubts when I heard about the big screen adaptation with such huge budget. First, I just couldn't see how this book can be made in less than 5 full length movies, one for each part. Second, I just couldn't see any Russian director being able to execute such production and make the world of the book real enough to satisfy me.

So with much pain I predicted that the movie will not be any good, that the curse of "book to film" adaptation will turn this movie into mess. And after seeing the first part of the film, I had both bad and good things to say about the movie so far.

I'll start with the bad. The curse of the "book into film" continues and not skipping this film as well. I guess you need one Peter Jackson and 4 years of development and production with unlimited devotion to overcome that curse.
It's hard for me to imagine how a person that didn't read the book will be able to understand what's going on. The movie runs very fast with the plot, displaying barely connected fragments of the story without giving them some weight and depth at all. Too much time is wasted on visual footage and on CGI effects, which seems to be more important than telling the story properly. The scenes have no time to breath, the story is rushed, causing total confusion and emphasizing bad acting.
The visual style is absolutely erratic, lacking consistency and unity. Inhabited Island fails to display anything original, everything here is either imitation, copy or direct theft of visual concepts. And instead of dedicating themselves to one style, as unoriginal as it is, the design style jumps between minimalistic and post apocalyptic steampunk of Gilliam's Brazil and 12 Monkeys to high tech and futuristic technology of 5th Element and Starship Troopers, including everything in between.

The movie is not even faithful to the book. Big distortion of the original story and creative independence film makers took upon themselves only hurts the cause. The fighting scene, in which the main hero fights what looks like bunch of ninjas with swords and other weapons, is completely stupid. The element of prophecy about the outsider that will come to save their world is completely bogus and nothing like that appears in the book. Bleak and filthy city, city that its purpose to symbolize the decadence and the despair of alien society, suddenly appears to be more colorful and exotic imitation of Blade Runner with fascinating images and smells. Some characters and events from the book just disappear in order to make things more simple, other characters appear as shallow versions of themselves, their actions and characterizations are distorted and they are nothing like their literature origins. Political themes still exist, but they have different and shallow interpretations.

So where is the good side? Somewhere in the middle of the film, after almost one hour of cinematic mess, things are starting to get a shape. The film slows down, suddenly the scenes last more than two minutes, the events become more tightly connected and the characters begin to speak full lines from the book. The editing becomes smooth and effortless, the story becomes more clear and suddenly even emotional involving kicks in.

And with the help of this significant improvement in the second half, Inhabited Island manages to impress nevertheless. It's also the size of the production, it's the investment in small details, it's the ability to create a certain feeling during the watching experience - entertainment.

The delivery of the final product is by all means very professional. No matter how many complains people will have about the script, acting and whatnot, no one can take away the biggest achievement of this film - flawless professionalism. The locations are perfect, the design work is enormous - custom created vehicles just for this movie, uniforms, weapons, all kind of exterior and interior designs of the buildings that are not CGI. You can feel the budget in every frame, you can also feel the true effort in creating the film. And when such visual beauty is thrown on the screen, and when the created world is very convincing and believable, nothing left but to appreciate it. I can bitch and moan right about anything in this film, but the movie doesn't start and end just with the final product, there are more sides to it, there is a bigger picture. And people that go to the movie and all they can see is two hours of moving pictures, thinking this is exactly how much time it took to film it - well, I don't really want to know their opinion.

Inhabited Island is first of all a professional production on the highest standards. Watching it is very enjoyable, just for the spectacular visuals. The movie feels like one piece, no dead moments, it tells one centered and developing story. And as result, eventually I found myself deep in the movie. When the delivery is convincing, no matter how many complains you will have later - the watching experience proves itself as very efficient.

And if you read all the responses and reviews, people will complain about the story, dialogs or acting, but no one will doubt the production values. And of course it's better to read the book before, it will be very helpful to understand what the film fails to reveal and to explain.

Inhabited Island the movie is definitely not what I imagined the book will look like, almost complete opposite of it. But I still enjoyed it, maybe because I watched it with open mind, and in the end I was simply impressed. All this negative points are result of over analyzing, most of it is not jumping to the eyes and can be forgivable.

The second part will be released next month, and from the looks of the trailer it will be even more visual. Come on, there will be an atom bomb explosion! Name any other movie that shows a big army battle with tanks and troops and atom bomb explodes right in the middle. Nothing? I thought so. And let me tell you a secret - it's not only one atom bomb that will explode, it actually a lot more. Watching only the first part of the film is not enough to fully evaluate it. And judging from the way it ended, I am really expecting to see it all.

Watch the trailer for the second part here.

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