Mafia: Survival Game

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/14/16 15:43:04

"What's worse than movies based on videogames? Ones based on card games."
1 stars (Total Crap)

SCREENED AT THE 2016 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: Nearly every time I see a movie based upon a video game, I can't but help but comment about how directly translating that medium's structures and mechanisms to film creates something incredibly awkward. That is nothing, however, compared to watching "Mafia: Survival Game" slavishly stick to the party card game that inspired it and fundamentally miss what makes something a watchable movie.

It reimagines this game as the most popular television show in the year 2072, where 12 people - some of them prisoners who will be freed if they win - compete for a pot of a million dollars that will be split among the survivors. This is meant quite literally - at the end of every round, the participants vote, and whoever is voted off is sent into a virtual reality simulation of his or her worst fears, and if you die in that... Well, you know.

This is the point where I would normally list out those contestants, but it's very close to pointless, especially since I only managed to get eleven down while taking notes. They have, in theory, been chosen like the contestants on an actual reality show, with clashing personality types and folks with connected backstories, and there are some potentially interesting ideas in there - ballerina Maria (Natalya Rudova) competing against her stalker Ari or one of the prisoners (Artyom Suchkov) being on death row because the oligarchs convinced him to take the fall for a friend's drunk driving - but with twelve of them to cram into 96 minutes, and occasional forays into the control room with the show's creator (Viktor Verzhbitskiy) that certainly feel like Ed Harris's scenes in The Truman Show, there's just not enough time for any of them to be anything but shallow.

(It also doesn't help that the version screened had what certainly seemed like a bargain-basement dubbing job. The festival director claimed that this was the only way it was available, and maybe that's how the film's Russian producers figure it can make headway in America. For something so obviously VOD-bound and needing festival word-of-mouth, you'd think they'd go with something that didn't make the movie look ridiculous.)

The big problem is that, at least as presented in the film, Mafia is a terrible game. I don't just mean that a million dollars seems like a pretty paltry sum - it's what The Amazing Race gives out today and that show doesn't guarantee that some of its participants will die. Maybe if its future Moscow felt more dystopic and desperate, that would be one thing, Andrey Gavrilov's script doesn't have that sort of edge, at least as it's dubbed. No, it's a game where the contestants are assigned "Mafia" and "Civilian" status in what is apparently random fashion, and then expected to figure out who is who based upon how they respond to each other's questions. It makes no sense, and renders every "round" completely arbitrary, as well as being static because everybody is basically strapped into chairs. It makes for a truly terrible movie, since the characters contribute nothing to the outcome, and feels like it would make terrible television for the same reason. There's no discernible difference between civilians and mafia, no way for the characters to figure it out, and no satire about just how meaningless the distinction is.

So those rounds just count down to the VR kills, and I'll give director Sarik Andreasyan some credit here - even though the outcome is basically pre-ordained, he and the cast members do a surprisingly good job of making the viewer feel like there may actually be some way out, or at least communicating the despairing panic of the situation. Some of the effects aren't terrible, either, although the film does rely on a lot of CGI that doesn't exactly make it look like the technology of digital image creation has advanced much in the next 55 years. To be fair, the visuals were not helped at all by the presentation (not only is the film clearly built for 3D, but the festival screened what looked like a DVD-quality image file on a video projector that couldn't handle its dark hues), but it didn't seem to be obscuring greatness.

I suppose that there's a bright side in that "Mafia" is instructively awful; it's a great tool for teaching the difference between earned tension and arbitrary conflict. It's a terrible movie to actually sit down and watch, though, a bunch of poorly-conceived and unmotivated scenes strung together that aren't even outrageous or ineptly shot/performed enough to be an eye-drawing trainwreck.

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