Action Film Review

Full Metal Film Review: Stalingrad (2013) (IMAX 3D)

February 28, 2014Ben MK

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In love and war

By Ben Mk

When you talk about big budget Hollywood blockbusters, you usually think of them as originating from — well, Hollywood. And if you didn't know the identities of the filmmakers behind the IMAX 3D action film Stalingrad, you'd swear that it too was a major Hollywood production — when in actuality, it's 100% made in Russia. So, it should come as no surprise that director Fyodor Bondarchuk has chosen the landmark Battle of Stalingrad — one of the most pivotal events in the country's history — to serve as the backdrop for this ambitious new take on an old war story.

The first thing that jumps out about the film is its massive scope, and it's evident right from the opening frames. Instead of leaping directly into the thick of battle, Bondarchuk opens the film with a sweeping aerial descent over the ruins of a modern day Japanese city, in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. But his attention swiftly turns to the tales of human suffering on the ground, signifying the tone of the film to follow — Stalingrad wholeheartedly embraces the bombastic aesthetic of Hollywood's disaster epics; but it also tries to counterbalance it with intimate moments of human drama, by distilling the large-scale conflict that pitted nation against nation to a battle of wits and wills between two hard-nosed soldiers — Captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), of Russia's Red Army, and Captain Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), of the German Wehrmacht — each of whom is trying his best to follow orders, in spite of an increasingly challenging situation.

It's the Autumn of 1942, and the Battle of Stalingrad is well underway. After crossing the Volga River to reach a German-occupied fuel depot on the other side, Gromov and his squad have managed to snare a small victory for the Russians — seizing back control of a war-ravaged tenement from German forces — albeit at the expense of the lives of some of their men, lost in the all-consuming fireball that results when Captain Kahn detonates the massive fuel containers. With Kahn and his Nazis drawing up plans to seize back control of their forfeited territory, it falls on Gromov and his small band of fighters — including sniper Chvanov (Dmitriy Lysenkov), spotter Astakhov (Sergey Bondarchuk) and tenor-turned-soldier Nikiforov (Alexey Barabash) — to hold their ground until reinforcements arrive. At the same time, both sides face distractions from the women in their midst — for Gromov and his men, it's the lone surviving resident of the building they occupy, the innocent yet strong-willed Katya (Maria Smolnikova); and for Kahn, it's the beautiful Masha (Yana Studilina), of whom he's reminded of his late wife. Amid the carnage, fascination soon gives way to love — but as tensions rise and the conflict marches towards its inevitable conclusion, it becomes clear that not all are destined to survive.

As an action film, Stalingrad is quite an experience in IMAX 3D. Russian soldiers engulfed in flames charge towards their enemies (and the camera) with their rifles pointed forward, in a final all-or-nothing assault; a fully-engulfed plane spirals out of control and hard into the ground below, decimating the surrounding structures as it descends; and the fuel tanks strapped to the backs of German troops equipped with flamethrowers explode under assault from gunfire, sending the men up in flames. If there's one thing you can count on in Stalingrad, it's fiery destruction aplenty, as well as rains of burning embers, ash and debris. And then there's the slow-motion action — featuring soldiers engaging in hand-to-hand combat and artillery shells closing in on their targets — which Bondarchuk packs so liberally into the film that it feels almost criminal that neither Michael Bay nor Zack Snyder received a producing credit. But instead of browbeating audiences, the action clichés actually enhance the experience — especially at IMAX proportions. Where the film does falter somewhat, however, is as a character drama. Although its 3D image features considerable depth, most of its characterizations — save for Kahn, Katya and Masha — ultimately fall flat. Fortunately enough, there's always just enough dramatic connectivity to hold the story together until the next action sequence.

The Bottom Line

Keeping with the production values of its big budget Hollywood counterparts, Stalingrad is a valiant attempt at instilling a little Russian cultural sensibility into the action and war genres — and for the most part, it succeeds. Although the action component of the film certainly fares better than its aspect of melodrama, it's still a refreshing change of perspective when it comes to the depiction of wartime conflict in cinema. And on the IMAX screen, it provides more than enough bang for the buck for moviegoers looking to satiate their appetite for epic destruction. [★★★½]

* Reviewer's note: Stalingrad opens in North America for an one-week exclusive engagement in IMAX 3D, beginning on February 28th.

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