Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/04/14 16:34:34

"Big and loud are its good points."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Columbia Pictures is releasing Russian blockbuster "Stalingrad" almost entirely in 3D on Imax screens, and I only include that "almost" just to cover all bases. This is not a bad strategy, as this is the sort of film where projection onto a screen the size of a medium-sized office building does not particularly magnify its many flaws, but certainly does highlight the big, loud spectacle of the thing. If you'r going to see this movie at all, that's the way to do it.

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the longest and bloodiest in the history of warfare, but this movie focuses tightly on a few days in one apartment building that is well-positioned to defend the best place to cross the Volga. After the Russians take it from the Nazis, five soldiers man this battlement: Astakhov (Sergey Bondarchuk), an artillery spotter; Chvanov (Dmitriy Lysenkov), a sniper; Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), an already much-decorated hero; Nikiforov (Aleksey Barabash), a former opera singer turned deadly hand-to-hand fighter; and Polyakov (Andrey Smolyakov), a widower old enough to be their father. Also in the building is its last remaining resident, 19-year-old Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), initially shell-shocked but brave. Across the way are the Nazis, with Captain Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) spearheading the attempt to retake this crucial building, although Colonel Khenze (Heiner Lauterbach) worries that Khan is spending too much time obsessing over Masha (Yanina Studilina), a Russian girl who reminds him of his dead wife.

There's also a Russian naval officer in the building (Oleg Volku), although for reasons the movie doesn't make terribly clear, he's not considered one of the "five fathers" of the present-day narrator who recounts this story for some German tourists trapped underneath the rubble during the recent Tokyo earthquakes. It's an odd way to frame the story on a number of levels - did writers Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkin feel that two hours spent crawling around one devastated city wasn't enough? And while this story is a tale of bravery, it's the sort of war story where a lot of people die, and it seems like kind of a weird story for a Russian man to tell a German girl under any circumstance, even if it is about a war seventy years in the past between two countries that have been more or less disassembled and rebuilt since. More importantly, though, the main story never shows the strength necessary to justify it. Which soldier Katya would take as a lover is never a particularly interesting mystery, and once that's been established, it's hard to see them as of equal importance to her, especially since they don't establish that sort of identity as a unit.

That's not exactly a failure on the part of the actors; they've each got their moments, and for the most part they do all right in carving out each individual characters' personality: Dmitriy Lysenkov, for instance, embraces the unpleasantness of his Chvanov without making him seem like a total monster, and Aleksey Barabash makes the weight of having spent his former life creating beauty more than that of other soldiers. Andrey Smolyakov gives Polyakov his own sort of world-weariness. Sergey Bondarchuk and Pyotr Fyodrov don't fare quite so well - they're able enough, but they're also two similarly-handsome guys about the same age in the same uniform and the same haircut, neither of whose characters has the sort of hook that makes him stick out like the others (that they are relatively unfamiliar actors and I can't pick up any vocal idiosyncrasies from the subtitles doesn't help me, either). At least Mariya Smolnikova is able to make Katya a bit more than a blank slate that the men can imprint their own desires on; she's got the expected innocence, bravery, and spunk, but she never seems empty in the way that she could have.

The potential trouble is, the relatively streamlined story on the Nazi side can often seem a bit more interesting. Yanina Studilina's Masha is stuck in a nightmare from minute one, and even though she's at time a less self-driven character than Katya, she's more active emotionally, and Studilina does all right in moving her between fear, anger, and resignation. Meanwhile, it's something of a shame that Thomas Kretschmann was born in Germany because he so often winds up playing Nazis in international productions, which seems like a tremendous waste of his natural charisma. Kahn is a creep (and then some) beyond being a Nazi, and yet Kretschmann makes him oddly sympathetic and compelling, enough so that the viewer may find himself trying to rationalize him into something other than the villain. Granted, that's a role that fits Heiner Lauterbach's Khenze better; he genuinely seems to enjoy doing monstrous things, and Lauterbach tears right into the part.

And whenever the two sides get to fighting, the movie certainly makes an argument for being worth the price of admission. Director Fedor Bondarchuk and cinematographer Maksin Osadchiy shoot in native 3D and certainly give the giant screen some consideration in how they frame things, keeping the camera low to maximize the third dimension and the scale of the location, whether it be the tight space under a collapsed building of the prologue or an entire battlefield where the audience needs to be able to see some back and forth. The action is well-staged; there's a battle where one army is on fire, knife fights where Bondarchuk slows things down just enough to let us savor the choreography without going all Zack Snyder on the audience, and moments where he throws stuff at the audience to fine effect. The bass rumbles nicely with the plentiful tanks, artillery, and bomber engines, and while the grayish-blue color and constant floating ash is a common technique, it works well here.

And yet... For all that the action is often impressive, even that part of the movie has problems. Bondarchuk actually takes quite a bit of time before he actually shows the building in which most of the action takes place or gives the audience the sort of shot that gives them the full lay of the land. Just as with the script, it's as though the filmmakers planned certain things out in great detail - we are eventually given fairly detailed backstories of all five fathers, for example, even if the relationships between them and Katya are perfunctory - but put little effort into pulling them together.

I saw this in a proper-sized Imax theater with personal subwoofers under each seat, and there was plenty of time when I wasn't giving the weaker bits of the production much thought, and I don't figure I was tricked or anything: Just like I go to other Imax theaters for documentaries that emphasize scale, smooth 3D, and immersive sound, I go to this theater for action presented the same way, and "Stalingrad" delivers that. Once it's out on video, it will just be an expensive-looking but rather hollow attempt at wartime romance.

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