Contemporary Moscow becomes a battleground for the survival of the human race in Attraction, a bombastic alien-invasion thriller whose familiar plot is elevated by world-class visual effects. Director Fyodor Bondarchuk is the son of the late Soviet-era Oscar-winning filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk and a public supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is arguably reflected in this film’s patriotic political subtext, although Bondarchuk insists the message is more universal than local. Prior to this, his most recent project was the 2013 epic Stalingrad, which Russia pitched unsuccessfully to the Academy Awards.
Attraction is already a box-office hit domestically, where it played in 3D Imax format alongside regular 2D. Feeling in places like a mixtape of earlier films including Independence Day, War of the Worlds, District 9 and RoboCop, it offers guilty-pleasure thrills with a light sheen of social comment. As a rare Russian sci-fi blockbuster, it should have readymade audience appeal, though the language barrier could prove a hurdle in English-speaking markets given the limited overlap between subtitle-friendly cineastes and action-thirsty genre fans. Currently touring film festivals in Europe and Asia, Attraction opens in German theaters next week. A U.S. launch has yet to be confirmed.
Close encounters of the absurd kind.
The opening act is a bravura display of visual pyrotechnics and aerial acrobatics. Russian military chiefs intercept a massive UFO in the thick of a dazzling meteor shower, shooting it down as it appears to menace Moscow. The craft plummets to earth in the Chertanovo residential area south of the city center, smashing through high-rise apartment blocks before flattening an entire neighborhood. This cataclysmic crash and the spaceship design itself, a kind of giant rotating eyeball suspended inside whirling gyroscopic rings, are both superlative examples of high-end VFX work.
After the crash, which leaves dozens dead, Moscow snaps into high military alert. But Colonel Valentin Lebedev (Oleg Menshikov), appointed to lead the army response, urges caution. Resisting hawkish politicians who demand an all-out assault, Lebedev instead makes contact with the aliens, who communicate telepathically from inside biomechanical body armor. He then agrees to seal off the crashed spaceship so the extra-terrestrials can complete their repair plans and leave the planet. But the colonel’s rebellious teenage daughter Yulia (Irina Starshenbaum) and her loose-cannon boyfriend Artyom (Alexander Petrov) have other ideas, sneaking inside the heavily guarded crash zone in search of alien treasure.
Piling absurdity upon absurdity, Attraction shifts gear midway through from action thriller to girl-meets-alien interspecies romance, all spiced with culture-clash comedy and father-daughter friction. It then climaxes with a lurch into violent extremism when angry human mobs rise up against intergalactic immigrants in a running street battle that threatens to obliterate all of Moscow.
Buried in the film’s heavy-handed message about tolerance towards outsiders lurks much proud rhetoric about Russians being a peace-loving people who only ever strike back in self-defense, which should play well with Bondarchuk’s pal Putin, at least. The jerky tone here becomes less like Independence Day and closer to vintage Cold War-era Hollywood propaganda like The Day the Earth Stood Still or This Island Earth, with their latent anxieties about escalating nuclear brinkmanship.
Attraction feels much bigger and slicker than its modest budget, reportedly around $6 million. Its characters may be ciphers, its pacing baggy and its plot derivative, but it is rarely boring. Even if Bondarchuk is a stranger to subtlety, his grasp of action beats and crowd-pleasing genre tropes shine through. Thus he methodically delivers a checklist of fan-boy essentials including a sexy young cast, partial nudity, wild car chases, adrenalized combat scenes and cool alien hardware. As serious sci-fi, Attraction barely leaves the launchpad. But as superior bubblegum spectacle, it easily blasts into orbit.
Production companies: Art Pictures Studio, Vodorod 2011
Cast: Irina Starshenbaum, Oleg Menshikov, Alexander Petrov, Darya Rudenok, Rinal Mukhametov
Director: Fyodor Bondarchuk
Screenwriters: Andrey Zolotaryov, Oleg Malovichko
Producers: Fyodor Bondarchuk, Dmitriy Rudovskiy, Mikhail Vrubel, Alexander Andryuschenko, Anton Zlatopolsky
Cinematographer: Mikhail Khasaya
Editor: Alexander Andryushchenko
Music: Ivan Burlyaev
Production designer: Zhanna Pakhomova