Directed by Egor Abramenko
Written by Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev
Starring Oksana Akinshina, Pyotr Fyodorov, Fedor Bondarchuk
Leave it to the Russians to convince us that leaving this planet and going to outer space may actually be a bad idea in 2020. Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik was originally set to premiere at Tribeca Film Fest but wound up bowing on Russia’s own streaming platforms becoming a sizable hit with over a million watches since late April. Sony Pictures was originally going to release the film but IFC Midnight has now secured North American rights so, thankfully, we can all check out one of Russia’s most ambitious sci-fi horror tales with relative ease. Unfortunately, except for the superb visual effects, Sputnik falls upon too many Russian stereotypes to feel as fresh and original as the alien design itself.
Born out of Abramenko’s own short film The Passenger, cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fuodorov) hurtles back to Earth after a mission gone wrong during the height of the Cold War. When he returns, he’s held in a remote bunker after the military learns that he has something inside of him that likes to gestate by day and explore its new cage by night. Konstantin, supposedly, has no memory of what happened and no understanding of why the creature within is using him as a flesh suit. Luckily, a brash, borderline reckless neurophysiologist named Tatyana Kilmova (Oksana Akinshina) reluctantly joins the team to try and figure out how to separate the two beings without killing either of them. Regardless of whether or not the relationship is symbiotic or parasitic, what you do to one detrimentally effects the other. This creates a bond that’s strangely similar to E.T. and Elliott’s connection without ever pulling at the heart strings as Spielberg did so masterfully. After all, this is a stern Russian production set inside a secret military base. It does beg the question: If Spielberg had been born in Russia, what kinds of films would he be making?
Although this is overly competent filmmaking from Abramenko right out of the gate, the visual effects work and animation direction by Russian outfits Algous Studio – that also worked on Why Don’t You Just Die – and Agora Studio are why Sputnik should be on your radar if you’re a creature feature aficionado. The alien design here is completely different from the vertical-mouthed oval headed mini-monster seen in Abramenko’s proof of concept The Passenger. This interplanetary traveller is really three designs in one. The initial slug-like gestation covered in slime wiggling out of its human body suit is suitably gross and penetrating. But the fish tailed, four-armed humanoid that emerges has a curious personality that calls out for empathy with an almost seductive air. This design is the most prominent and most expressive with a similar wingback appearance that’s a little reminiscent of the deep sea architects of James Cameron’s The Abyss. It’s actually kind of cute! That is until those wings turn into something more akin to bat ears and the alien’s kill mode is activated.
One scene where Tatyana, our scientist, uses night vision to witness a soldier being offered up as pet food is particularly inventive and the film’s main action set piece shows what could have been if Alien: Covenant had a little more passion behind it. Summing up, it’s just incredible design work and, given the films success abroad, something we could see more of in the future.
Set in 1983, the fictional events of Sputnik take place only four Earth years after Ridley Scott’s A L I E N changed outer space forever. That’s not necessarily a comment on the immediate international influence of Scott’s masterpiece, however. The Cold War setting just seems like a checked box that screenwriters Malovichko and Zolotarev use to export the story to a global audience that only thinks in communist clichés. It’s tempting but ultimately too cheesy to appropriate the term “Red Scare” and use it as a horror headline, but the storyline of Sputnik almost baits critics into doing just that. It doesn’t really try to break out of Russian power play dynamics and obsessions with brave soldiers and loyalty. Overall, Sputnik checks all the boxes but just doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s never as engaging as the classic it feels like it could be, especially from the country that gave us Andrei Tarkovsky.
Sputnik is now available in select theaters, Digital and Cable VOD.
Stay for the creature not the feature.