Target (Mishen): Film Review

Eternal youth is the holy grail for Russia’s self-obsessed elite, a sharp premise that goes out of focus in this sprawling but original sci-fi drama.

A well-crafted but not entirely effective view of the near future.

An ambitious depiction of a dystopian near future, the Russian drama Target (Mishen) doesn’t hit all its many intended bull’s-eyes. But if director Alexander Zeldovich overreaches, he has created a film with strong cult potential. The built-for-the-huge-screen visual sweep of his storytelling has an undeniable pull, and his portrait of a group of well-heeled Muscovites at times recalls 1960s-vintage Fellini with its blend of absurdity and ennui.

The social observation is far sharper than the melodrama in the two-and-a-half-hour feature, which conjures a fresh, if ultimately unwieldy, mix of action, sci-fi, political philosophy and sex. A World Cinema selection at the recent AFI Fest, Target is the third feature from REN Film, which produced Andrey Zvjagintzev's exquisite minimalist drama The Return. Target is far from minimalist, and it loses strength and focus as it proceeds. Still, its originality and flashes of cinematic oomph should guarantee continued festival exposure and could secure theatrical berths in select territories.

Setting the genre mashup in 2020 Moscow, Zeldovich and his co-screenwriter, Vladimir Sorokin, parody contemporary trends and push them into imaginary — and mostly believable — realms. It’s the upper-class obsession with cutting-edge life enhancements, from bottled artesian spring water to the hard science of antiaging, that leads the central group of characters to a remote desert compound near Mongolia, said to be the “clearest” place on the planet. They arrive via private plane, toasting “freedom, youth and happiness,” and spend a night at an abandoned astrophysics facility. The radiation-collection well, known as the Target, is supposed to provide the ultimate rejuvenating experience. If it’s any indication, the locals seem to be eternally young.

At the center of the group is the Russian Federation’s minister of natural resources, Viktor (Maksim Sukhanov), alternately dour and impassioned. His bored wife, Zoya (Justine Waddell), is drawn to the intense Nikolai (Vitaly Kishchenko), an official in “mobile customs.” At their bare-bones hotel, her brother, Mitya (Danila Kozlovsky), the speed-talking ringmaster of a bizarre reality contest show, falls for Anna (Daniela Stoyanovich), host of his favorite radio program, Chinese for Dummies.

China figures large in the story’s astute East-facing setup, as it does in any realistic view of today’s world economy. Everything from run-of-the-mill consumer goods to highly valued memory chips are in transport 24 hours per day, hauled in semis on transnational roads like the Guangzhou-Paris Highway. Nikolai is a figure of authority on that high-traffic route. Legitimate title aside, his power rests on strong-arming cargo carriers into an insurance scam. His sense of command goes off the rails in a business meeting that ends, rather extravagantly, in murder.

The film, too, goes off the rails. But along the way it dips into bracing doses of Russian philosophical argument— socialism versus democracy, freedom versus equality— on Mitya’s grotesque circus of a show. And it casts a laser beam at the way the privileged rate and quantify everything, including character. Viktor, convinced that there are no ethically neutral substances, relies on goggles that distinguish good from evil. Like a crackpot New Age guru, he proselytizes for the urgency of turning the nation into a source of positive energy.

Amid myriad plot strands — international thuggery, Viktor’s zealotry and Zoya’s increasingly strange affair with Nikolai (even with limited nudity, the sex scenes are strikingly graphic) — the drama squanders its bracing promise. The satire of the early stretches devolves into bitter rebuke. But those early sequences, with their vivid characters, smart production design and fluent lensing, are visions with staying power.

Venue: AFI Fest
A REN Film production
Cast: Maxim Sukhanov, Justine Waddell, Vitaly Kishchenko, Danila Kozlovsky, Daniela Stoyanovich, Nina Loschinina
Director: Alexander Zeldovich
Screenwriters: Vladimir Sorokin, Alexander Zeldovich
Producer: Dmitri Lesnevsky
Director of photography: Alexandre Ilkhovski
Production designers: Yuri Kharikov, Vladimir Rodimov
Music: Leonid Desyatnikov
Editors: Neil Farrell, Andrey Nazarov
No MPAA rating, 154 minutes