Though it opens with a spectacular, Independence Day-like sequence of devastation as a giant alien spacecraft ploughs through a Moscow district, this expensive Russian science fiction film isn’t really an invasion/disaster movie. In Hollywood terms, it owes a little more to The Day the Earth Stood Still or Starman, with a near-saintly, practically immortal alien treated badly by instinctively hostile humans but forming a bond with an Earthwoman and learning to respect the exclusively human tradition of love. Yes, there’s nothing here s-f filmgoers won’t be familiar with – but, as with other popular Russian mainstream stuff I’ve seen in the last few years (the Nightwatch films, the latest Sherlock Holmes series), there’s an interesting parallel between the plot (humans misunderstand the aliens) and general outside world assumptions about the political-philosophical bent of their big entertainments. In the montage of reactions to the alien event, we get glimpses of Putin and Trump … neither of whom, it is implied, have been any help at all.
The general thrust of the story is as suspicious of both the authorities and ordinary citizens as many Western films in the E.T. mode – when the alien object becomes visible (thanks to a meteor shower interfering with its cloaking device) over Moscow, the Russian air force shoots it down without regards for interplanetary diplomacy or damage to life and property in the (fairly rough) district the great sphere and its revovling rings crash into. The neighbourhood is evacuated and sealed off by the military, commanded by Colonel Lebedev (Oleg Menshikov), and the pissed-off citizenry clash with riot-shield-and-club wielding soldiery at the improvised barrier. Suspicion of the aliens’ purpose is exacerbated by their ship’s method of self-repair, which involves drawing all the water out of the area and causing shortages. Yulia (Irina Starshenbaum), Lebedev’s daughter, is angry at the death of her best friend (Darya Rudenok), who was on top of a building looking up at the meteors when the ship sheared off the roof, and prevails on her boyfriend Artyom (Alexander Petrov), who seems to be boss of the local gang, to smuggle her into the exclusion zone so she can take a pot-shot at one of the sleekly armoured aliens. However, a close encounter with one of the visitors doesn’t go the way she expects – the alien saves her from being crushed under wreckage but Artyom and his mates attack it, and the pale, pin-up-look humanoid Haukon (Rinal Mukhametov) frees himself from his armour and has to be tended and looked after by Yulia (who even arranges a blood transfusion).
Yulia and Haukon have semi-comic interspecies misunderstandings – he puts on a silly hat and wanders about Moscow without papers, which is never a goodidea – and the beginnings of a romance. Artyom’s xenophobia is ramped up when he realises his girlfriend is dumping him for an alien hunk and further when his best mate is killed by a stray shot as the gang are beating up Haukon – who takes all the pummelling until Yulia is endangered, then shows off super-strength by throwing the goons about. Artyom stirs up a mob on the model of vintage Frankenstein movies (his obnoxious slogan ‘the Earth is for Humans’, which makes him sound like an ultra-nationalist racist from any country you’d care to pick) – a particularly vivid minor character is the grinning, molotov-cocktail-throwing footie hooligan type who shows up at every clash to make things worse. Lebedev now has to protect the alien ship from the mob – and Haukon has told Yulia that the ship will self-destruct to keep its tech out of human hands, levelling the district, if it’s overwhelmed. In the climax, Artyom gets into Haukon’s old armour and tries to kill his rival during a race against time to prevent further mass human and alien casualties.
Like Russian space opera from the Soviet period – Solaris excepted,of course – this has big, simple characters (Artyom, the villain, is actually the most complicated of the bunch) and an air of weary humanism tinged with a sense of wonder about aliens who have attained a state of sterile utopia we’ve yet to approach. Mukhametov, who looks like the sort of chiselled guy who’d be the love interest in a Hunger Games/Divergent-type series, is insufficiently unearthly when out of his impressive CGI carapace, but Starshenbaum is a winning, tough teenage heroine. Scripted by Oleg Malovichko (Guardians of the Night) and Andrey Zolotarev; directed by Fedor Bondarchuk (the Dark Planet films, Stalingrad).