MOSCOW -- The public reception of Russia's new "Crimea" movie blockbuster about its invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula is being hotly contested, with Kremlin-tied media suggesting it's a box-office hit and independent media and review sites calling it a flop playing in empty cinemas.
Backed by Russia's Defense Ministry, the movie premiered to fanfare in the annexed territory on September 27, but had an inauspicious start amid accusations that hackers had infiltrated a popular Russian movie website to inflate Crimea's public review ratings.
"Nice try," Yelizaveta Surganova, chief editor of KinoPoisk, wrote on Facebook on September 28, saying her site had deleted tens of thousands of fake reviews that had artificially cranked the film's rating up to 6.2 out of 10. "It would be better to spend those efforts on the quality of films."
KinoPoisk now gives Crimea a meager 2.4 rating on a 10-point scale, and ranks it as one of its 10 most-unpopular films ever. IVI.Ru, a Russian online video site, grades the film at 2.1 out of 10, while the popular Internet Movie Database (IMDb) gives the film a 1.1 rating out of 10.
Meanwhile, independent media outlets like Rosbalt report that the film is being screened in front of nonexistent audiences. On October 3, an overview of ticket sales at St. Petersburg cinemas found some movie theaters had not sold a single ticket had been sold for the film, while the cinema with the most sales showed a modest 50 sales from a 250-seat theater.
A Novaya Gazeta report from Sevastopol on October 6 found that cinemas have only been about half full since the third day of screenings. Its report, Who Was That sniper? What Nonsense, found that most viewers were critical of the film in a survey taken at the end of the movie, taking issue with the portrayal of events.
Those reports are in contrast to the picture offered on state and Kremlin-connected media.
RIA Novosti on October 2, for instance, reported the film topped box office sales over the weekend, taking in 160 million rubles ($2.75 million).
The Defense Ministry's Zvezda TV channel reported on October 5 how Russia's communications watchdog has warned about the "large number" of pirate copies of the film being made – a testament to the "film's success."
Independent media outlets such as Znak report that the idea for the film came from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and was approved in the Kremlin by President Vladimir Putin himself.
WATCH: Official Trailer For Crimea
Directed by Aleksei Pimanov, a filmmaker, journalist, and former lawmaker who is persona non grata in Ukraine, the film tells the tale of a romance that unfolds amid Russia's 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea.
The land-grab was internationally condemned and prompted the West to impose sanctions against Russia, driving relations between Moscow and the West into a downward spiral and to post-Cold War lows.
In Russia, the annexation was greeted largely with jubilation, while the audacity of the military maneuver has been touted by authorities as evidence of Russia's triumphant return to "great power" status from post-Soviet mediocrity -- a longstanding Kremlin goal during Putin's 18-year rule.
Next year's presidential elections, which Putin is expected to take part in and win, were earlier moved forward by one week so that they will fall on March 18, the official anniversary of the annexation.
Reviews of the film posted on IVI.Ru range radically from the breathlessly positive to the abjectly negative, with some of the latter accusing the former of lying shamelessly. Those negative reviewers also claim the film misrepresents events.
"The film is horrible, horrible!!!" wrote Elvira. "Such nonsense. I'm Crimean, and this is brainwashing as usual. No one there was happy, everyone was scared, sat at home, praying that war wouldn't start. And here the heroes are coming here to sleep. It wasn't like that, everything was taken over. Everyone was quiet and scared. Scared of people in balaclavas, tanks, weapons."
Ksenia wrote: "What total nonsense and lies!!!!!! They'd be better off showing how Crimea after the referendum lives in total s***!"
Despite the low ratings, there were many positive reviews as well.
"I don't like our films much, but I liked Crimea. It's worth [watching] just for the views of the peninsula, the head spins from the beauty," wrote Mikhail.
"The film is wonderful," wrote Lublena. "It's about love and the relations of people, Russians, Ukrainians. Good must triumph."
The film may be put to political use by the authorities on October 7.
The Russian opposition has accused officials of putting on a special-events program on Putin's 65th birthday to lure would-be protesters from rallies planned by supporters of anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny.
The protests that are expected to take place in dozens of towns across Russia, including Putin's hometown, have not been officially authorized and are likely to result in many detentions.
According to the opposition, free admission to the Crimea movie is a central element of the program.