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The production design, effects and camera work in Director Fedor Bondarchuk's Stalingrad are top notch; the narrative and characters, less so. This blockbuster Russian import is the first non-American film produced in the IMAX format, and the $30-million budget places Stalingrad among the most expensive films produced in Russia. The film dramatizes the Battle of Stalingrad, a lengthy and bloody turning point in World War II, and follows groups of Soviet and Nazi soldiers as they camp in the city's desecrated apartment blocks, planning their next move. There are some exciting action sequences and artfully lensed wartime violence on display, but the stock, underdeveloped characters and overextended narrative disappoint. The film is an interesting theatrical experiment that would have benefitted from a stronger narrative base.
Scriptwriter Ilya Tilkin drew from the journals and recollections of actual soldiers, as well as historical record, to draft the screenplay, which also includes a fictional love story. After Soviet troops fail to cross the Volga river and suffer heavy casualties, a group of survivors takes refuge in a heavily damaged apartment building. Inside they find a resident, Katya (Maria Smolnikova), who never left and now lives amid crumbling drywall and ash as the Germans continue to hammer the city with heavy artillery. Our five Soviet heroes fire on Germans who wander into the open, and awkwardly vie for Katya's attention. Across the plaza is a German encampment, where a German captain (Thomas Kretschmann) has also fallen for a local woman (Yanina Studilina) despite kickback from his commanding officers.
Director Bondarchuk, who shot the popular but similarly fictionalized war drama 9th Company, has a keen eye for scene staging and effects blending. He uses light and shadow and smoke and debris to create a beautifully bleak setting. The film looks like it cost far more than $30 million, and the battle effects and explosions are quite realistic. There is plenty of slow motion, which is surprisingly effective, and the camera pointedly lingers on atrocities and the soldiers' reactions. Stalingrad opens, somewhat unnecessarily, with a scene set during the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami. A rescuer describes his "five fathers" and mother - Katya - and recalls how the men protected her in the face of annihilation. Katya is meant to evoke the Russian homeland, but this bookend sequence could have been set anywhere to the same effect.
The film does an OK job reminding viewers that soldiers on both sides are just men fighting for their country and family, but none of the male characters is particularly memorable. The men are so fungible that when something bad happens to one man, it does not resonate. That was not the filmmakers' intent, and it renders Stalingrad an attractive, empty drama. The large-scale theatrics and visual effects are the best part of Stalingrad, which is undercut by an undercooked story. I expected this visual flair to overwhelm the story, and it does, but not for the reasons I anticipated. Bondarchuk is a talented visual director, and I would like to see him work on a project with a stronger narrative foundation.
This two-disc set includes both 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded 2D and 2.35:1/1080p/MVC-encoded 3D transfers on separate discs. This is a fantastic presentation however you choose to watch the film. This digitally shot production positively sparkles on Blu-ray. Fine-object and deep-field detail are equally impressive, and texture is abundant. Every crumbling brick, bloody wound and fiery explosion is visible in breathtaking clarity. Much of the film is shot in cool blues and greys, but the sharp interludes of sparkling reds and oranges during the firefights are intense. Skin tones are natural, black levels are strong and shadow detail is excellent. There are no issues with noise reduction or motion blur. The 3D image provides an immersive experience, with expanded depth of field and impressive element separation. There are no big issues with ghosting or digital hiccups.
The Russian 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is masterful. This is a truly theatrical experience, with incredible sound design and clarity. All elements are mixed appropriately. Dialogue is crisp and clear, whether delivered from the center channel or the surrounds. Effects are sharp and articulate, and the action effects are bombastic. Bombs fall throughout the sonic field and explode into the subwoofer; bullets ricochet across the room; and environmental effects are subtly effective. The score is weighty and pleasing, and never overwhelms dialogue or effects. English and French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio dub tracks are also available, as are English, English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray and an UltraViolet HD Digital Copy. The discs are packed into an Elite Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a slipcover. On the 3D disc you get Stereoscopic Stalingrad (5:34/HD), about the 3D production. On the 2D disc there is a brief featurette, The Making of Stalingrad (11:34/HD), with cast and crew interviews.
This Russian import is visually arresting, with exciting effects and excellent cinematography. Unfortunately, this fictionalized portrait of the Battle of Stalingrad, a turning point for Soviet and Nazi troops in WWII, features stock characters and a forgettable love story that undercuts the film's impact. The 3D and 2D Blu-ray presentations are flawless, and the film is at least worth watching once. Rent It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.