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According to an old joke, Americans made movies where boy meets girl, boy gets girl, and the Soviets made movies where boy meets tractor, collective farm gets tractor.

That joke may now be once and for all buried as the first post-communist Russian blockbuster, Night Watch, opened in Moscow to enormous box office success. American films tend to dominate Russian screens as they do in countries world-wide, but this time, the Russians took a page from Hollywood’s book. Night Watch is part of a trilogy of science fiction films based on the work of popular Russian genre writer Sergei Lukyanenko, and deploying state of the art digital special effects.

Russian critics are comparing the film to The Matrix or Lord of the Rings franchise and not simply because the three films were shot back to back and then staggered for distribution. The Matrix films, especially Revolution, made more money in Russia than in the United States. Perhaps they were confused by the title. I’m kidding, folks.

The focus of the Night Watch trilogy is a thousands year old battle between good and evil; each participant has supernatural power and the freedom to decide which side they are on. The director, Mr. Bekmambetov, said the film’s battle between good and evil was “very important to its appeal. We
had a strong Communist ideology for 70 years, then it crashed, and now we are creating a new infrastructure.”

Science fiction has often been used to examine issues of social, cultural, and technological change, so it is hardly a surprise that it would become an appealing genre for post-Communist Russia. As it happens, immediately following the Russian Revolution in the 1910s, the most popular western writers in the new Soviet Union were Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs (the Mars books, more than Tarzan). Alongside Battleship Potempkin, the soviets were producing and consuming a significant number of science fiction films.

It’s refreshing to learn that the Russians are geeks like us.

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