Unrelentingly macho, violent and a bit of a hoot, sci-fi actioner “Terra Nova” looks set to be the next Russian B.O. smash when it bows in late August. Made on a big (for Russia) budget alleged to be upwards of $12 million, pic tells the tale of a motley crew of prisoners shipped to a far northern island and left to fight it out over supplies and survival. Think “Battle Royale” meets “Escape From New York” in the Gulag. Such mainstream Russian fare rarely travels well, although fests and adventurous distribs might set sail for “Terra’s” shores.
It’s 2013, and at a Russian prison, newly arrived convict Ivan Zhilin (Konstantin Lavronenko, from Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “The Return” and “The Banishment”) is offered a choice: Spend the rest of his natural life in prison or agree to deportation to Terra Nova, a remote Arctic region where he’ll be left to fend for himself with some 200 other prisoners and plentiful supplies.
Zhilin, convicted of killing 22 people for reasons never made clear, agrees. He and his fellow prisoners are loaded onto a transport boat where the claustrophobic quarters generate numerous character introductions and violence. Zhilin bunks with comical psychopath Nikolai (Andrei Feskov), who later will become his staunchest ally.
Fatalities start to mount as soon as the men are dumped ashore, and factions form immediately. (Pic plays disgracefully on nationalist Russian sentiment when the Chechen group is bloodily ousted.) The dry stores are soon eaten up by lemmings, making food scarce. Before long, man-mountain Monkey (Pavel Sborschikov) and his evil cohorts build a jail of their own and begin systematically eating the reimprisoned prisoners.
Zhilin strikes out alone, surviving on birds and fish; he’s eventually joined by Nikolai. When they discover a means of escape, they realize they’ll need to go back to the camp for help — and risk becoming the next day’s dinner.
Violence escalates dramatically in the final reels, while the introduction of a boatload of prisoners from North America, wearing Guantanamo-Bay-style orange jumpsuits, adds some contempo resonance. Altogether, the pic builds a bleak, “Lord of the Flies”-style portrait of humanity, offering scant comfort to champions of penal reform.
“Terra Nova” marks an impressive helming debut for Alexander Melnik, a former journalist, documaker and producer (he’s one of the founders of Andreevsky Flag production house, which made “Mongol”). Pic’s complex script, by Arif Aliev (“Mongol,” “Prisoner of the Mountains”), could have yielded a mess in the hands of another tyro, but Melnik juggles all the plotlines adeptly and ensures characters are always identifiable — no mean feat, given they’re mostly wearing variations on the same uniform throughout. Even the geographical layout of the compound and the island itself is clarified by thoughtful editing and camerawork, although the running time could be a little brisker.
Apart from Lavronenko, who seems to be modeling his implacable perf on early Clint Eastwood, the rest of the Russian cast goes at the action sequences hammer-and-tongs, with somewhat hammy but enjoyable results. Faring less well are the thesps playing the authorities who run the island, delivering their line readings in clunky English.