Tag Archives: Russia & Soviet Union

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Viy

My odyssey through the strange world of Russian fantasy films began in earnest many years ago, when I moved to a prominently Russian and Ukrainian neighborhood and started prowling around the DVD stores of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Up until then, I’d caught glimpses of this strange and wonderful looking avenue of cinema in the form of dubbed and edited American versions of the films, where Ilya Muromets became The Sword and the Dragon and Sadko became The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. These movies made regular rounds on broadcast television back when I was a kid, and I loved them without having any idea they were Russian fantasy films tailored by crafty American distributors to become nationless adventure spectacle. They were colorful, they were full of monsters, and they had lots of guys with swords running at each other. When I crept a little closer to old age, I decided I wanted to find the original versions of the films — much as I did with Eastern Bloc science fiction films — not just to see what had been changed, but also to see them in a better quality than I’d enjoyed on independent broadcast television with rabbit-ear antennae reception.

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Apocalypse Code

Studies of Russian cinema tend to be studies of Soviet cinema — classics from the glory days (such as they were) of the communist powerhouse. Russia has moved on, though, both cinematically and culturally (though Vladimir Putin would love if that wan’t the case), and modern Russian cinema is a very different beast than the cinema from which it has grown. And what could be more different from Soviet era cinema than being almost exactly like modern American cinema? Or maybe, if we don’t want to stick with the usual Cold War comparison, let’s say modern South Korean cinema. Oh wait…there’s a Cold War connection there too, isn’t there? Anyway, the point is, modern Russian cinema — at least the big budget version — is highly polished, very slick, slightly soulless, and if you replaced the Russian language with English, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that Apocalypse Code wasn’t a minor Hollywood blockbuster.

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Wolfhound

After the global success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, to say nothing of the Harry Potter books and movies I hear were mildly popular for a brief period, most everyone assumed the world was ready for a glut of big-budget fantasy films full of heroic posing and dodgy CGI effects. While there were attempts — The Golden Compass, a few Chronicles of Narnia films, that lavish epic In the Name of the King from Dr. Uwe Boll and featuring King Burt Reynolds — most of those attempts fell flat on their face, and the cash-in trend died before it took off.

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To the Stars By Hard Ways

In 2002, I had the possibly once in a lifetime chance to spend an entire summer driving across the United States. My traveling partner and I were able to indulge every whim, sometimes diverting wildly from our vaguely set course in order to visit some out of the way attraction or satisfy some curiosity or whim. Among the many things we both enjoyed was visiting air and space museums. Some we had targeted ahead of time. Others we learned about along the way. Some we stumbled upon entirely by chance out in the relative middle of nowhere. We were, at one point, making our way across Kansas after having already stumbled upon the Mid-America Air Museum in Liberal. We hit a town called Hutchinson, and as we made our way through caught a glimpse in the distance of a couple rockets. Obviously further investigation was warranted, and that in turn led us to The Cosmosphere. By this point in our travels, we’d hit more air and space museums than I can remember off the top of my head, and though I was not tiring of them (who can get enough Ham the space chimp? No one I’d want to know, that’s who), what made Cosmosphere one of the best was that a substantial portion of the museum was dedicated to the Soviet space program.

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Hard to be a God

In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.

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Black Lightning

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As the kind of pop culture savvy, switched-on individual who reads Teleport City, I assume you’re familiar with Sam Raimi’s excellent 2002 adaptation of Spider-Man. But in case you’re not or just need reminding, here’s a quick recap of the plot. Peter Parker sees the girl of his dreams being wooed by a wealthy jock with a flash car. Deciding what he needs is a cool set of wheels, he uses his recently acquired spider powers to enter a wrestling contest for money, only to see through his inaction, his beloved Uncle Ben shot and killed. The 2009 Russian film Black Lightning (produced as all Russian movies apparently are by Night Watch’s Timur Bekmambetov) uses the same plot, but asks the one important question Spider-Man left dangling; ‘what about the car? What about the car??’

Moscow, 2004. Greedy industrialist Victor Kuptsov (Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Night Watch) is drilling for the vast diamond deposits buried under the city. Despite warnings that this will undermine the foundations of Moscow and possibly kill millions through earthquakes, Kuptsov pushes ahead, but is thwarted when his giant Matrix-style tunneling machine isn’t powerful enough. The only thing with enough energy to complete the plan is the MacGuffin-O-Tron, also known as the Nanocatalyst. This device fashioned from magic moon rocks can increase the power of any normal fuel to over a million times the power of nuclear energy, or something. It was designed in the Soviet days but the project was abandoned.


In the present day, some workers employed by Kuptsov discover the lab where the Nanocatalyst was discovered. There are lots of blueprints and so forth, and also an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga automobile. Seeing the chance to make a profit, they decide to swipe the car and sell it. Which may have a certain significance to college student and our nominated Piotr Parkovich, a.k.a. Dmtry, Dima to his friends (Grigory Dobrygin). Dima is contentious, studies hard, and has serious hots for the new girl, Nastya (the extremely pretty Ekaterina Vilkova, Hipsters). Dima though is constantly upstaged by his rich buddy Maxim (Ivan Zhidkov), who drives a sleek white Mercedes (one of the things that tickled me about this movie is how everyone evil drives a Merc. I’m half-expecting to find an interview where one of the writers reveals a Mercedes killed his father). Seeing his son is pretty bummed out, Dima’s Dad (Sergey Garmash, Space Dogs 3D), a poor but upstanding tram driver, buys his son… an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

Dima is grateful but not exactly thrilled; this is hardly the car to impress Nastya. So he hides it and tries to get the bus to college, but misses it because of stopping to help an old drunk. And on this day of all days, when nasty Victor Kuptsov is giving a lecture at the college. Dima earns some cutting remarks from Kuptsov, who trots out the old bullshit that successful people help only themselves. But his words strike a chord in Dima, who wants to make enough money to impress the girl he loves. You can probably see where this is going…


Kuptsov meanwhile is annoyed that the Nanocatalyst is nowhere to be found, only a container of previously converted super-energized nanofuel (it’s blue and glowing so you know it’s crazy powerful). From the blueprints it’s apparent that the Nanocatalyst has been built into the missing Volga, so Kuptsov sends his army of heavies out into Moscow to find all the Volgas they can. Meanwhile all is not well in the Dima household. Dima’s new attitude of only looking out for himself and trying to make as much money as possible does not sit well with his poor-but-proud Dad. When Dima Sr. intervenes in a mugging, his son berates him for risking his life for someone else, causing a deep rift between them. Kuptsov’s men observe Dad getting angrily out of the Volga, but stick with pursuing the car. And then Dima makes a startling discovery: his car can fly. Aw, man. The Russians had flying cars back in the 1960s? Way to go, capitalism.

Through an old record he finds in the glove box, Dima tracks down a couple of the scientists who built the car. They are now married, Perepelkin (Valeriy Zolotukhin, Night Watch) and Romantseva (Ekaterina Vasileva). Perepelkin is suspicious, claiming they could never get the Nanocatalyst to work, the project was closed down and chief scientist Elizarov (Juozas Budraitis) was fired in disgrace. Romantseva is more sympathetic and gives Dima the manual for the car. Now that he can circumvent the horrendous Moscow traffic, Dima becomes the star of the flower delivery service he’s been working for. Finally he has some cash to splash around, and takes Nastya to dinner at a swanky restaurant. He discovers quickly that she’s not the rich sophisticate Max said she was, and if she fails the next college exam will have to go back to her family in the country.


Unfortunately with great wealth comes great assholery. Dima gets into a fight with Max, and says a few salacious (and untrue) things about Nastya, which she overhears. Even worse, when he goes to reconcile with his Dad, Kuptsov’s men get there first, and the mugger Dad thwarted earlier is in their employ. Dad ends up bleeding to death in a snowy side-street while Dima sits idly by, refusing to call an ambulance because it doesn’t fit with his new ‘looking out for number one’ philosophy. He realizes too late who the victim is, Dad having already passed away.

At home with his distraught Mum (Elena Valyushkina) and little sister Tanka (Katya Starshova), Dima has the revelation we’ve been waiting for since the opening credits, especially when Tanka tells him “you’ll have to be dad now.” Using the Volga’s super-radio which cleverly doubles as a police band scanner, Dima becomes a hoodie-wearing superhero. He saves a child from a burning apartment block, foils an armoured car robbery and saves a baby in one go, even catches the mugger who killed his Dad (the mugger’s fate is not revealed, but since I don’t think Dima ever knew it was him, this isn’t too much of an oversight – I quite liked the ambiguity, in fact). He also gives the Volga a spiffy new coat of paint, and soon the people and the press are going crazy over this hero they have dubbed ‘Black Lightning.’ My favourite scene in the film is a lovely little moment that pops up about now, when Tanka asks Dima if Black Lightning is real. He says yes, but nobody knows who he is. “I think it’s Dad,” she replies. Brought a little lump to my throat, I don’t mind telling you.

Kuptsov is getting extremely frustrated with his inability to capture the car and the Nanocatalyst. He recalls the three scientists from the original project and convinces them he’s building a new version of the car to help Black Lightning in his heroic work. It transpires that Romantseva and Elizarov were in love, but because Perepelkin wanted her for himself he faked the negative results, knowing Elizarov would be fired. Meanwhile Dima deliberately fails an exam, knowing his place will go to Nastya, who is genuinely struggling. She realizes he’s not the dickhead she thought he was, but in a romantic twist of fate that is equal parts brilliant and ridiculous, ends up thinking Maxim is Black Lightning. Max being a genuine dickhead, plays along.


Back at Kuptsov’s facility, Perepelkin finds out about the plot to drill for diamonds and destroy Moscow. Now eager to redeem himself, he tries to escape and get help even though it means likely death. Kuptsov lets him go, betting that Black Lightning will show up to rescue him. Nastya meanwhile has switched her allegiance back to Maxim, admiring his apparent selflessness and heroism. Discovering this, Dima almost lets Perepelkin die just to prove Maxim isn’t the hero, but of course he can’t. “Black Lighting will be there. He has to be there,” he tells Nastya, even though he knows he’s playing into Maxim’s hands (Max is hiding in the toilet at this point). And somehow, Nastya realizes that even though Maxim is apparently the hero, she actually loves Dima.

Unfortunately Dima falls into Kuptsov’s trap, failing to save Perepelkin and losing the Nanocatalyst to the bad guy’s super, rocket-armed flying Mercedes. Kuptsov re-starts the drill with the three scientists tied to it, and Moscow seems doomed. With only his small reserve tank of nanofuel left, Dima is able to stop the drill and recover the Nanocatalyst. Kuptsov is furious and, having worked out who Black Lightning is, kidnaps Nastya, demanding the Nanocatalyst in exchange for her life. Can Dima save the woman he loves and Moscow and defeat the man ultimately responsible for his father’s death? Does a Russian bear shit in the woods?


Y’know, I could say a lot of negative things about Black Lightning. Sure, it’s massively derivative of American comic book movies; as well as the Spider-Man series, it borrows bits of Iron Man, Batman Begins (the score is identical in spots) and Universal’s legal team may have been rubbing their hands over the Delorean-like design of Kuptsov’s flying Mercedes (Universal put the film out internationally though so I assume it was OK). Dima even has a Facebook account where people can ask him for help, Kick Ass style, but I guess those movies were in production at the same time so we’ll let that one go.

On top of that, the plot is pretty thin, and several of the elements could have been fleshed out better. In particular I’d like to have seen the car given a bit more… personality I guess. I don’t mean have it talk or think for itself, but it doesn’t register on-screen the way I think it’s meant to. Partly this is down to Dima’s character never seeming to have much of a bond with it; it’s just a tool for getting the job done. I do wonder if part of this is because the special effects, while good, are used sparingly, so the flying sequences are quite brief. Hey, I doubt they had $150 million to spend so that’s understandable. I also think it’s because Grigory Dobrygin as Dima isn’t a very good actor. He’s a little too blank, is better at being a jerk than a hero, and a times is even a little creepy. The rest of the characters are pure ciphers, though thankfully filled by good actors who make them work for the most part.


And then there are those pesky action sequences. I know that in a movie about a magic flying car it’s probably silly to complain about how much of the action seems to defy physics, but there are moments where I did roll my eyes (like when Black Lightning is flying vertically upwards with another car balanced upright on the front fender – I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work). And a little more time spent on exactly what the car is capable of would have been nice. It seems like the only difference from a normal car is supposed to be the flying thing, and yet BL seems to be indestructible, can apparently go into space without ill effects despite earlier being shown not to be watertight, and a few other things. And honestly, when it comes to super-heroics a flying car is a lot less practical than a dude swinging from a web. Take the moment where a stolen armoured car is about to hit a woman and her baby. BL shunts it from the side, flipping it over. So now it’s still moving forward at speed towards the baby but completely unable to steer. Of course it stops in the nick of time but you get the idea.

And yet… for all its many faults, I found myself going along with Black Lightning, and getting genuinely invested in the outcome. There are some nice moments throughout, and so help me I wanted to see weird, creepy Dima get the girl. I mentioned the sweet little bit with him and his sister, and I all but cheered when Dima thinks he’s sacrificing his future with Nastya to do the right thing. I am something of a sucker for comic book movies, I guess. I even smiled a little at the joke stolen from the Moore-era Bond movies, when a guy about to knock back his fifth vodka sees the flying car and swears off booze forever. So while far from a classic, I’d give Black Lightning a pass, even though it has nothing to do with the DC comics character of the same name – a black guy who shoots lightning.

And so what if they never really address why a bunch of scientists, discovering a magic new power source, would turn it into a flying car? If I had the technology and the resources I’d build that shit yesterday!

Release Year: 2009 | Country: Russia | Starring: Grigory Dobrygin, Ekaterina Vilkova, Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Valeriy Zolotukhin, Ekaterina Vasileva, Juozas Budraitis, Ivan Zhidkov, Sergey Garmash, Ekaterina Starshova, Mikhail Efremov, Dato Bakhtadze, Igor Savochkin, Sergey Legostaev, Elena Valyushkina | Screenplay: Dmitriy Aleynikov, Aleksandr Talal, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel, Rostislav Krivitskiy, Vladimir Neklyudov | Director: Dmitriy Kiselev, Aleksandr Voytinskiy | Cinematography: Sergey Trofimov | Music: Yuriy Poteenko | Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Syuzanna Muazen, Pavel Ratner, Iva Stromilova, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel | Original title: Chernaya Molniya