In the years since the Cold War, during which the Soviet Union engineered a team of superheroes under the Patriot programme, the Iron Curtain has fallen and the subjects have gone into hiding outside of the new Russian border. When one of Patriot’s founding members resurfaces years later and uses his abilities to hijack a number of advanced paramilitary robots, Major Elena Larina (Valeriya Shkirando) is tasked with reuniting the estranged teammates. Comprising Ler Landman (Sebastien Sisak), a monk with the ability to control mountains; Ursus (Anton Pampushnyy), a were-bear who can transform at will; Khan Windman (Sanzhar Madiyev), a martial artist capable of teleportation; and Xenia Waterwoman (Alina Lanina), an invisible woman who can walk on water, Patriot aims to stop August Kuratov (Stanislav Shirin) from taking over the world.
In the over-saturated market of superhero movies it is becoming increasingly difficult to stand out, particularly as fanboy-policed canons and studio-controlled cinematic universes make it harder for filmmakers to experiment and innovate. One movie that has managed to overcome this undiminished ubiquity is Sarik Andreasyan’s Guardians (translated from ?????????), a distinctly Russian superhero movie and decidedly original origin story that looks utterly unlike anything that has come before, save perhaps Iron Sky, which wasn’t even about superheroes. From the moment that the first trailer debuted Pampushnyy’s gun-totting man-bear to dumbstruck audiences, to the announcement that it had bombed at the international box office amid universally negative reviews, there has been the sense that Guardians, whether good or bad, really has to be seen to be believed.
That said, Guardians undoubtedly manages to deliver set pieces that have never been seen before and in a Moscow setting still relatively alien to international audiences. The effects themselves cannot compete with those funded by either Marvel or Warner Bros., but there’s an imagination on display that goes some way towards compensating for the obvious budgetary constraints. An early battle between Ler and August, in which the former uses his control over the earth for defensive and attack purposes, amassing a rock shied and hurling satellites at his aggressor, is one of the most remarkable set pieces in recent memory. It also helps that the film is so relentlessly serious, so stoic and sober, that is manages to be unintentionally hilarious — high camp at its most unabashed. The screening I attended was so in awe, so incredulous, so thoroughly entertained by the insanity unfolding onscreen (Ursus one-ups Hulk by having pants that don’t just shrink back to size but reassemble themselves after every transformation) that it received a round of applause at the end, when an awkward and entirely ancillary post-credits sequence teased a sequel that would likely never be made.
If you’re tired of comic book movies, if you can no longer tell one superhero apart from another, or if you’ve simply seen New York destroyed too many times to care anymore, then watch Guardians. Watch Guardians as a pantomime, as a pastiche or as a guilty pleasure. You won’t like it, but you just might love it.
Guardians is playing at the EIFF 2017.