Abigail (2020) Review (525th Review)
A DISAPPOINTING STEAMPUNK FANTASY
Within the many genres of storytelling, the spectacle and fascination of steampunk has caught the attention of many viewers / readers across; providing a new landscape medium of backdrop settings, depictions of society, and of alternatives takes of imagination. In a nutshell, Steampunk is a retrofuturistic subgenres of sci-fi / fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetics designs that are inspired by 19th century industrial steam-powered machinery. To elaborate further, steampunk most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or retrofuturistic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. There’s also an emphasis of steampunk of often set in an alternative history of the 19th century British Victorian era (or the American “Wild West”) in a future during which steam power has maintained mainstream usage; weaving into other fictional genres such fantasy, science fiction, or horror. The ideas of steampunk have garnished inspiration from a great host of various medium platforms and media outlets, including literary tales, TV productions, video games, feature films, cosplay outfits, and many others. Now, KD Studios, Well Go USA, 20th Century Fox (as distributor) and director Aleksandr Boguslavsky present the latest offering of the steampunk variety, with the fantasy adventure film titled Abigail. Does the movie serve as a wholesome dose of the steam-powered escapades or does it fall prey to classic pitfalls of style over substance?
Abigail Foster (Tinatin Dalakishvili) has grown up in a city whose borders are closed many years ago because of a mysterious epidemic illness that was infecting its citizen; forcing the government to take radical actions in marshal lawing the city and removing those with the infections swiftly. Abby’s father, Jonathan (Eddie Marsan) was one of those individuals who was presumed sick, and disappeared years ago, when Abigail was six. Wanting to find her father, Abigail begins to search for his clues, which draws suspicions from the security forces of town, including Garrett (Artyom Tkachenko), an old friend of the family and won who presides to rule over the walled city. However, Abigail uncovers the truth behind the infection, which is ruse for the government to remove those with magical powers “gifted ones” from the populace without obstructing or voices, as well as learning she herself posses the mystical powers. Now, Abigail, along with several rebel fighters, including Bale (Gleb Bochkov), Norman (Rinal Mukhametov), and Marcus (Nikita Dyuvbanov), find a way to unravel Garrett’s master plan and spread freedom to city; leading the charge that will take them to uncovering more about the truth behind where her father is as well and the role he played in the past.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Personally, steampunk is something quite new to me. I’ll definitely admit that I like it as it has a special type of allure and mystique to the narratives that incorporate it; something akin to one foot in reality and the other in a surreal alternative take of genre that’s inspiring it. However, in my experience, the subgenre sort of “popped up” from out of nowhere and automatically began to influence a wide variety of projects in different mediums. In the literary world, I first experienced steampunk in the form of Scott Westerfield’s YA Leviathan trilogy (a steampunk alternative reimagining of WWI) of which I highly recommend and then followed by other authors like Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series. In the TV and movie media outlets, steampunk can be seeing in such projects as Avatar: The Legend of Korra, Fullmetal Alchemist, Penny Dreadful, Howl’s Moving Castle, Mortal Engines, and several others. Heck, there are even restaurants that are catered in the style and motifs of the steampunk imagination such as The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen in Universal Studios Orlando. In short, the popularity of steampunk may not be incredibly heightened in mainstream pop-culture, but has certainly (in my opinion) captured the attention and imagination of many with its unique /stylish take on alternative history and visual aesthetics.
This brings me back to talking about Abigail, a 2019 feature that utilizes the steampunk aesthetic and nuances within its fantasy-esque narrative. To be quite honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie back in 2019. I think I might have heard one or two things (via newsfeed), but it wasn’t really on my radar. Perhaps the reason for this is because of the movie was of a international release (Russia) and did not see a theatrical release in North America; never appearing in US movie theaters. So, with the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself turning towards online streaming services to find smaller / independent releases to watching and review for my blog. This is how I came across Abigail (via scrolling through rentals on Vudu), which was released on Blu-Ray and digital format on March 17th, 2020 (I consider it to be a 2020 release for me even though it was initially released in 2019). The description of the movie looked interesting (always love a good fantasy story) and the film’s movie trailer, while looking a little low budget, definitely caught my attention and fascination. Definitely recommend my reader to at least check out the trailer on YouTube. So, taking a chance, I rented Abigail and to see what the movie was gonna be about as it sort of reminded me as a lot of YA movie endeavors of the 2000s era. And what did I think of the movie? Well, it was somewhat middling for my taste. While the movie intent is there and does have a few redeeming qualities, Abigail struggles to rise to the challenge and provides a mediocre steampunk fantasy tale. The visual appeal is certainly there, but comes up short within its derivate / predictable nature.
Abigail is directed by Aleksandr Boguslavsky, whose previous directorial works includes several TV show episodes from Porguzhenie and Vyzhit posle as well as the movie Beyond the Edge. Thus, Boguslavsky’s makes this steampunk fantasy adventure his sophomore directorial feature and (for what its worth) does do a decent job on his part. I will go on the record that this movie does toil with some good conceptual ideas and in its presentation (more on that below) and stemming from the fact that it is a international production release (i.e. Russian) and not from a major Hollywood studio, I do give Boguslavsky and his shaping of Abigail a little bit more credit than some viewers might have. Don’t worry…. I’ll list the problems I have with the film down below. Anyways, Boguslavsky does an admirably job in approaching a project like this as it does indeed have a lot of moving parts that are needed to make this feature whole of which he tries to do in a decent manner. It’s sort of like a “double edge sword” type deal as Boguslavsky tries to emulate a Hollywood blockbuster release, but on a smaller scale budget. The result is something that definitely works, but not fully. Regardless, Boguslavsky has all the right ingredients to make such a visual tale for Abigail that makes for a familiar and standard tale of fantasy, mystery, and young courageous people standing up against an oppressive government. For better or worse, I do (at the very least) applaud Boguslavsky for his efforts.
Perhaps the greatest strength that the movie has going for it is in its visual appeal and overall production execution; making Abigail shine in its overall production quality in bringing this vivid bleak yet fantastical steampunk world to life. As I stated above, the movie is a international release and was only made for 600 million Rubies, which translates to $7,728,000.00 US dollar. Considering that the price to other Hollywood studio blockbusters of a similar narratives and Abigail seems to be more of the winner; finding Boguslavsky smartly utilizing the feature’s budget and making a very believable world that (as I mentioned before) speaks to the nature of steampunk of having one foot in reality and the other in a surreal one. The film’s location for, which were shot in Russia and Estonia, heavily speak to the city intricate design (narrow streets and corridors, old and rundown buildings) of a closed-walled city that’s filled with dreary and has a claustrophobic feeling to it all. Plus, the costume designs and make-up work for the feature are pretty good, which (again) have that steampunk look and feel throughout various character’s attire and facial hair. In addition, the film’s visual effects are pretty good (seriously, I mean) and definitely makes the case for someone impressive CGI works. Of course, it doesn’t beat out any visual effects from any major Hollywood blockbuster endeavor, but visuals for Abagail definitely work and stand out in a good of the feature utilizing magical powers and weaponry. Additionally, the whole steampunk aspect and nuances are really great in the movie of which some of the visual effect help bring to life, including a floating sky fortress sequence and an airship. Lastly, the film’s score, Ryan Otter deliver a straightforward musical score to the film’s story, with a few standout melodic pieces that play throughout the movie.
Unfortunately, problems do quickly begin to pop up in the movie that makes Abigail a motion picture that seems to bite off more than it can chew and maybe perhaps too ambitious within its own derivate nature. How so? Well, for starters, the movie is woefully derivate in nature and, while that might bring up some warm feeling familiarity to people of the YA / fantasy genre, the movie doesn’t really stand upon its own merits in terms of storytelling and ideas. Perhaps this stems from the feature’s script, which was penned by Boguslavsky and Dmitriy Zhigalov, which does little to invigorate or stimulate the feature with originality. Yes, the story is quite engaging, but its been down many times over in other more ambitious and promising cinematic endeavors. Personally, it all just feels like a cobbled-up version of many fantasies and / or YA projects of the past. What do I mean? Well, there’s a little bit of Harry Potter, a little bit of The Golden Compass, a little bit of City of Ember, a little bit of The Hunger Games, a little bit of Twilight, and so on and so forth. Even from dystopian / steampunk narratives in feature films such as V for Vendetta or Mortal Engines can be easily spotted in Abigail’s story of which the movie tries to emulate throughout the film’s runtime. Heck, I even noticed a little bit of James Patterson’s Witch & Wizard series and Lisa McMann’s Unwanted series in the movie’s narrative. Thus, as a whole, the film’s script seems to be drawing upon all of these source material elements in a way to “cash in” on the success of dystopian tales and fantasy young adult adventures. The result does little to stimulate and often hinders the movie; struggling to find a balance of ingenuity and originality to the feature’s execution. This, of course, makes Abigail feel stale and unoriginal; plagued by formualci narrative beats and a genuine predictable path that leaves little to none excitement or shocking moments that one can easily see coming.
In addition, what also hinders the movie’s narrative is that it spends too much time on its world building aspects and not so much on its characters. I really do like the world building concept of Abigail’s steampunk landscape and kind of wanted to know more, but the script never delves much into intricate character motivations or shedding light on certain storytelling elements, with some ideas being convoluted or empty by the time the movie reaches its conclusion. Basically, the film is all style and lacks substance within its narrative. Coinciding with that, the movie also suffers from pacing issues scattered throughout the feature. With a runtime of 110 minutes (one hour and fifty minutes), Abigail has plenty of room to maneuver things around, but it immediately gets bogged down with tedious flashbacks and uninteresting plot points that distract from developing the story and / or its characters. Even the ending feels a bit lopsided and rushed; drawing to a conclusion that somewhat works, but kind of leaves an unsatisfying ending to this steampunk adventure. In truth, the movie really could’ve (and should’ve) been done as a TV series (or limited mini-series of some kind) to allow the narrative to breathe and expand upon its world, ideas, characters, and story. That would’ve been something to see like on Netflix and probably (with the right finessing) could’ve been a big hit.
The cast in Abigail is somewhat okay, but kind of a mixed bag. Adding to that, I did see the movie’s release for North America, which features English dubbing over the character’s voice, which were shot (presumably) in Russian. The result, like I said, is hodgepodge mixed bag of dubbing voice work that doesn’t quite work; making it quite obvious from start to finish and clashing with the what the actors / actresses are doing / expressing. Adding more insult to injury is the simply fact the many of the characters are stereotypical clichés of the YA fantasy genre; drumming up tiresome archetypes that feel dull and boring from the get-go. This definitely comes across in the film’s main protagonist character of Abigail Foster, who is played by actress Tinatin Javakhishvili (Star and Let It Snow), who just seems to struggle in finding a proper footing in the role. Yes, she gets the job done, but never truly shines as the main character of the feature; playing up the commonly used tropes of “special” young heroine character with a mysterious past and that will be the chosen individual to “spark” a rebellion against tyrannical rule. This is all well and good, but the character feels stale and uninspiring and Javakhishvili just seems to be going through the motions of the character, which is disappointing.
The same can be said with the characters of Garret, the film’s main antagonist, and Bale, the young individual who wants to overthrow the city’s government and Abigail’s lover interest. Played by actors Artyom Tkachenko (The Blackout and S’parta) and Gleb Bockhov (Leo i Uragan), these two particular individuals are woefully locked into their archetypes, with the talents playing them too rigid in their performance and no breaking their “classic” molds to be memorable. In short, there are bland cardboard cut outs as villain and love interest. To me, the only one character that is perhaps the most memorable in the movie is the character of Jonathan Foster, Abigail’s father, who is played by actor Eddie Marsan (The World’s End and Sherlock Holmes). While Marsan has appeared in many feature films as a supporting player, his role in Abigail is somewhat importance and gets toted as a “seasoned / big-ticketed” actor on the feature. He surely does shine, but he’s still only a supporting secondary character and only gets a few scenes here and there in the film. Sad and disappointing.
The rest of the cast, including actor Rinal Mukhametov (Attraction and Coma) as Norman, actress Ravshana Kurkova (The Brave and About Love) as Stella, actor Nikita Dyuvbanov (Dance to Death and Beyond the Edge) as Marcus, and actress Kensiya Kutepova (The Blackout and Beanpole) as Abigail’s mother, Margaret Foster, fill out the rest of players in Abigail, but most of them only make one or two small impressions in a few scenes and (like the ones above) falls into the pitfalls of being clichés and caricatures of fantasy YA stereotypes (i.e. wizen old man, the silent individual, the jealous female, concerned mother, etc.). As stated, the movie’s characters are dubbed in English, with the voiceover performance being mostly cringeworthy. I couldn’t find out who did the voiceover work for all of them, but its grating to hear and almost laughably dull for the most part. The written dialogue is fine, but the overall delivery of the lines is quite horrendous and lifeless. I would’ve given the movie a higher praise and appreciation if the movie was presented in only the Russian language rather than dubbed in English. Would’ve been more unique and interesting, in my opinion.
To uncover the truth behind the disappearance of her father, Abigail Foster discovers the secrets of which her bordered town are kept hidden and the brings about the spark of rebellion in the film Abigail. Director Aleksandr Boguslavsky’s sophomore feature film jumps into the foray of steampunk fantasy; enriching the world with imagination visuals of magic and mystery. While the story CG visuals are quite impressive as well as the production value for this cinematic tale, the movie falters within its own premise; relying heavily on predictable tropes and references of similar narrations as well as several pacing issues and some questionable decisions of dialogue voice acting for English dubbing. Personally, this film was okay, but a bit disappointing at the same time. It wasn’t terrible and I did enjoy seeing a film come from a non-major Hollywood studio (a little better than what I was expecting), but even slick visuals and steampunk nuances can’t mask the negative criticisms that have for this feature. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is favorable “skip it” as it really doesn’t have much flavor to stand on its own merits beyond similar projects. If interested in a good visual steampunk adventure, I would say check out Mortal Engines. It’s not great, but definitely what this movie sort of wanted to achieve (to some degree). In the end, while the steampunk subgenre will continue to grow and gain more followers in various media platforms, Abigail will most likely fade into the background and become a middling fantasy steampunk that runs out of steam.
Also, a personal side note, Abigail is my 525th movie review since I’ve started blogging. This is truly a huge and celebratory milestone for me! I wanted give a special thank you to all my readers, followers, and fellow bloggers for reading my movie reviews and giving me this platform to share (with you guys) my views on cinematic tales.
2.4 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: March 17th, 2020 (US Release Date)
Reviewed On: April 22nd, 2020
Abigail is 110 minutes long and is doesn’t have a proper rating, but would say its PG or PG-13 for fantasy action and violence throughout