Maxim Kammerer travels through the cosmos with his spaceship. He crashes on planet Saraksh, which is home to a human civilization. Maxim makes contact with the locals and integrates quickly into the society of the country Fatherland, which is in a constant state of war with his neighbors. In addition, so-called mutants are being hunted down relentlessly by the government and spying and denunciation are commonplace. Maxim tries to intervene and to change things for the better, but his actions have grave consequences.
Dark Planet is based on the book The Inhabited Island (titled Prisoners of War in the English edition) by Russian writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The two brothers are considered to be among the leading figures of classic Soviet Science Fiction. Several of their books have been adapted into movies, most notably Roadside Picnic that inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker to a large extent. More recent adaptations were Hard to be A God and The Ugly Swans. While all of them were excellent movies, they did not appeal to a wider audience due their dark and austere visual style, and philosophy-laden plots. With Dark Planet director Fyodor Bondarchuk took a different approach and tried to cast the classic novel into a modern blockbuster template. The original novel was certainly more approachable that other works of the Strugatsky brothers. This did not help with the commercial success of the movie in Russia, however, where it flopped. Also, as usual with Russian movies, it was not noticed much outside of Russia.
Dark Planet tells a story with an epic length of 3.5 hours split into two separate movies that transition seamlessly into each other. The extensive length leaves enough room to include all important plot points of the book, and Dark Planet follows the book rather closely. This is not a good or a bad thing really, as long as a good movie is produced from adaptation of the source material. There are a couple of sequences that are taken somewhat out of context from the book and are not further explained. While this may add to the immersion and mystery of the story, I can imagine that many viewers will find it a bit confusing.
The story unfolds slowly, but steadily. The movie takes its time to introduce the politics and technology of the problematic society Maxim is plunged into. The social commentary aspects about the totalitarian regime of the country Fatherland are a little outdated and were likely much more provocative in the days of the Soviet regime than they are now. In that respect Dark Planet has nothing particularly original to offer, but it features a rich plot with an unusual ending.
As for the production values, they are excellent. Dark Planet was the most expensive Russian movie at its time, and it certainly shows. Maxim and his fellow travelers visit an impressive variety of large set pieces in the colorful but dystopic world. The movie borrows part of its style from genre companions such as Blade Runner and Equilibrium but has enough creative ideas to make it not look like a rip-off. CGI are used whenever needed, and don’t seem to be used when they can be avoided. The numerous action sequences support the story well enough, and include martial arts fights, tank battles and car chases.
Acting is also more than decent, with the lead role played by Vasiliy Stepanov being particularly interesting. Apparently recruited by director Fyodor Bondarchuk without any prior acting experience, he gives an innocent, almost naive performance. This matches excellently with Maxim’s character in the book, who is equally very naive, and almost always optimistic and interested in everything even in the greatest danger. At least that’s my interpretation of it, but it’s certainly understandable to question the choice of casting such an inexperienced lead actor for a production of this kind.
Dark Planet is an excellent example of a modern Science Fiction movie done right. It’s an impressive epic that tells a classic story updated for 21st Century audiences and shows that Russian Science Fiction movies are still a force to be reckoned with.