Gulag democracy

If you are ever imprisoned and given the opportunity to exchange your sentence for life on a deserted island with a bunch of violent criminals, it’s probably not a good idea to take the offer.

If you are ever imprisoned and given the opportunity to exchange your sentence for life on a deserted island with a bunch of violent criminals, it’s probably not a good idea to take the offer.

It’s a fair bet that your island life won’t turn into a Blue Lagoon-style love-fest, unless your idea of love is cannibalism, dismemberment and violent perversion. Happy Valentines Day.

Such is the lesson of Terra Nova, an import from Russia that manages to mix B-movie devices (hokey plot, exaggerated violence, cost-saving maneuvers) with top-class cinematography, dialogue and pacing.

If you’ve seen Battle Royale or Lord of the Flies you know the deal. The film brings little new to the genre (if you can call it that) but like a new song on the radio that reminds you of a long-time favorite, it hits all the right points and feelings to leave you satisfied.

Terra Nova, the directorial debut of Alexander Melnik, takes us a few years in the future to 2013. A group of dangerous convicts are packed together on an ocean liner departing for a remote arctic island where they have agreed to go in exchange for life in prison.

Factions begin to form immediately, but Ivan Zhilin, a convicted murderer (we don’t learn much more about his past) decides to back off and keep to himself. It’s for the best since once the group hits the island and are given a pile of handcuff keys to sort through, all hell breaks loose and the axes their guards handily left for them are put to use.

Right down on the heads of the weaker convicts.

While the crazies indulge their bloodlust and the strong prove their might, a madman named Monkey becomes the de-facto leader on their new beach home. Ivan sneaks a few supplies and scurries off to live alone in the mountains.

Ivan, played by veteran actor Andrei Zvyagintsev, manages to garner our sympathies despite his questionable past. Zvyagintsev’s acting is subtle and downplayed, a perfect counterpoint to the wild-eyed energy of the other criminals. In a film where there are so many characters and constant spurts of exaggerated violence, his plight keeps the film grounded.

But his isolation doesn’t last long. After growing a killer, “look at me I’m marooned” beard, he is found by the maniac Nikolai, he of the mumbles and Gollum-like scurrying, who only wants to be pleasant, but at times can’t manage to avoid his nature.

Nikolai (Andrei Feskov) wants to live with Ivan and eventually Ivan agrees.

Here are three reasons why you should never align yourself with a psychopath:
1. He just won’t shut up about how great it is to pull someone’s intestines out of their body.
2. You’ll catch him masturbating to a picture of your dead wife and children.
3. Do you really need another reason?

After an uncertain beginning in their relationship, (Ivan tosses Nikolai off of a short cliff after incident No. 2 transpires) they eventually find themselves back on the beach, fighting to survive in the now cannibalistic, fascist society the convicts have created for themselves.

The second half of the film, which has surprises I will not reveal, hits a little too hard on the ultra-violence, but by the time we get there, the characterization is already set-up and the violence manages to mean something other than just being exploitive. Writer Arif Aliev realizes the importance of developing realistic characters before throwing them into unrealistic action set pieces.

For that reason, Terra Nova should be cherished. It’s not often that we can indulge our love of cheesy thrills and not feel incredibly dirty afterwards. The movie gives us lush, beautiful photography, an engrossing story and chopped off limbs. What more could you want?