The Russian word “sputnik” is most commonly associated with the first satellites to be launched into space by the Soviet Union. That the word also translates into “traveling companion” in English makes it the perfect title for director Egor Abramenko’s feature-length debut, a science-fiction thriller inspired by his acclaimed short The Passenger. Set in 1983, Sputnik follows one daring scientist as she tries to figure out what is wrong with a cosmonaut who has recently returned to Earth; she all too quickly discovers that he did not come back alone.
An Unwitting Host
When we first meet psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), she is facing a review board who question her controversial methods of doing whatever it takes to cure her patients – in this specific case, holding a young man underwater until he nearly drowns to cure his epilepsy. Tatyana is confident that she did the right thing and unwilling to lie for the sake of keeping her license to practice. Her daring attitude impresses Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk), who asks her to accompany him to a secure government facility in Kazakhstan to examine the recently returned cosmonaut Konstantin Sergeyevich (Pyotr Fyodorov). Konstantin’s spacecraft crashed on impact, killing his fellow cosmonaut, and Konstantin has no memory of the accident or what could have caused it. Tatyana’s mission is to find out.
However, Tatyana soon learns that things are far more complicated than Colonel Semiradov let on. In the middle of the night, she is brought to observe Konstantin – who she believes is suffering from PTSD – and is shocked to learn that what actually plagues him is no illness ever seen before on this planet. Turns out, Konstantin was not the only survivor of the crash: he has brought an alien parasite back to Earth inside his body. Tatyana is now charged with figuring out how to separate the parasite from its host so that it can potentially be used as a new kind of weapon by the Soviet Union. The problem? Konstantin has no idea of what happens to him every night, and Tatyana is forbidden from telling him.
The Horrors Within
From the concept to the strong female lead to the delightfully creepy creature design, it’s obvious that one of the biggest influences on Sputnik is the original Alien. Whereas that film’s horrors thrived on the claustrophobia created by being set entirely on a spaceship, Sputnik achieves a similar effect with its remote Soviet compound. The shadowy cinematography of Maxim Zhukov leaves just enough to one’s imagination, leaving you terrified of what might be waiting around every dark corner while still showing you enough of the creature to satisfy your innate desire to be freaked out. (After all, why else would you be watching such a movie?)
The tension builds marvelously throughout the first half of Sputnik as the audience and Tatyana slowly learn the dark truths behind Konstantin’s condition. Rather than rely on purely visceral thrills (of which there are many), Sputnik also attempts to explore psychological issues, particularly those around abandonment. Konstantin has a son he has never met who is living in an orphanage, something that Tatyana connects to on a deeply personal level. That Konstantin chose the emptiness of space over the responsibilities of being a father, only to come back home with a parasitic companion that hampers his independence far more than a child ever could, is the emotional core of Sputnik. It’s also, unfortunately, one of the weakest aspects of the movie, paving the way for a relationship between Konstantin and Tatyana in the latter half of the film that feels wholly unnatural – and that’s saying something when the film centers on the literally out-of-this-world concept of parasitic aliens.
It doesn’t help that the two leads lack chemistry; indeed, Akinshina is far better when Tatyana is coldly questioning Semiradov about the various secrets he is keeping from her – including the horrifying reveal of what the creature feeds on than when she is falling for the brash, unlikable Konstantin. It feels out of character, despite the film’s attempts at creating a deeper connection between them. These ideas are intriguing in theory but poorly executed, especially in comparison with Sputnik’s scarier scenes, which showcase Abramenko’s keen talent for creating chilling images. While heavily influenced by classic monster movies and 1980s science fiction, he also has an imagination all his own that, when freed from the constraints of a script like that of Sputnik, will surely go on to create even better things.
Sputnik is a solid alien-driven thriller; it’s when it focuses on the more human elements to its story that it stumbles.
What do you think? What is your favorite alien invasion movie? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Sputnik will be released in theaters and on VOD on August 14, 2020. You can find more international release dates here.
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