The desolateness of space, where only the darkness lurks, has always been a fresh breeding ground for movie makers to elicit frights. Often, the scares are of the extraterrestrial variety, orphaned creatures traveling the cosmos alone. In a bid to survive, they become parasites to the human hosts who discover them, much like the creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Rarely is the pairing symbiotic. Probably because parasites are acting upon the passive host, while symbiosis requires two active participants. Moreover, the latter welcomes a deeply psychological analysis, asking something of ourselves: fears, wants, and desires.
A filmmaker could set this scenario in the isolated confines of space, where paranoia could take hold. But what if such a tale were set in a country like the USSR during the Cold War? There, where surveillance and paranoia are as common as the sun rising, the construct would say as much about that particular human environment as the host. Egor Abramenko’s Russian extraterrestrial creature feature Sputnik does just that by questioning the difference between monsters and heroes for a gory science-fiction fright.
Two Russian cosmonauts circling the earth in the Orbita-4 Spaceship during 1983, open the film. Commander Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov, offering a controlled performance) and his co-pilot have been in space for at least two months, and they’re preparing to return home. As they sing songs, the pair hear a thud on the outside of their capsule. By the time their capsule softly parachutes back down to the surface, an unspeakable catastrophe occurs which leaves Konstantin spewing blood and his eyes a pitch black color.
Weeks later, at the Institute of Braine AMS USSR, a neurologist, Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina), stands trial. Unflinchingly fearless and rarely deterred, she’s accused of nearly drowning her patient. When given the choice between accepting charges of negligence or serving jail time, she stands by her decision. Rarely concerned with convenience, she’s solely interested in making the right decision, no matter the consequences. Her approach to medicine attracts the attention of Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), a shady commander of a research institute. He recruits her to treat Konstantin—who he claims is suffering from episodic amnesia—with the promise of her freedom. The situation is “voluntary,” as Semiradov doesn’t believe in orders because “orders are not effective for highly intelligent people.” An anti-Soviet philosophy which serves a film that’s inspecting the doctrines of the past, fairly well.
Sputnik fascinates as a Cold War study of surveillance and censorship. When Tatiana arrives at the base—not an institute in the conventional sense—Semiradov promises her access to 90% of the facility. The question remains: What’s in the other 10%? Furthermore, only he can approve phone calls directed outside of the base. Tatiana is paired with the wormish Yan Leonidovich Rigle (Anton Vasilev), the institute’s Research Director. The pair often butt heads, with most confrontations concerning what information Konstantin deserves to know. Among the austere confines of the military compound, where corridors twist into unknown spaces, cameras capture all, as well. There’s never a moment where Tatiana isn’t looking over her shoulder, which pretty much serves as a reminder of the USSR as the first surveillance state.
Abramenko’s science-fiction flick soon switches into a gory creature feature when Semiradov informs Tatiana of the symbiotic alien living inside of Konstantin. The creature design is fantastic, partly welcoming comparisons to the extraterrestrials in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, except far slimier and grosser. The film’s lighting is gorgeous, copying the flushed out artificial hues of orange illumination present in cinema from the late-70’s.
As Tatiana discovers more information about the creature, such as what it feeds on, Sputnik turns into a gripping morality play. For instance, whenever Tatiana confronts a character about their highly illegal actions, their response in kind is, “What would you have done in my place? I can’t be responsible for that.” They’re just following orders. When juxtaposed to the narrative of Konstantin as a national hero, himself a deeply flawed man, Abramenko questions the difference between hero and criminal. And without spoiling much, what the creature feeds on partly links back to Sputnik’s the aforementioned query.
As intriguing as Abramenko’s Sputnik is, there are gaps. For one, there’s a subplot involving an orphan that leads to a last act twist which feels ham-fisted. The actions of Rigle during the last act make little sense with regards to the character’s conception during most of the film. Semiradov also lacks any depth beyond a stoic psychopath. Plus, the full nature of the symbiotic relationship between Konstantin and the alien is often far too convenient. Still, Akinshina very much runs off with the film. She shows something below her character’s icy cold exterior, a warmth which keeps afloat the notion of Tatiana empathizing with Konstantin, even after the ugly truth comes out.
The film’s final act: a bloody, bloody symposium or murder, does answer what makes a hero. Intriguingly, amongst the ubiquity of Soviet doctrine, the fear that governed the state, and the displacing of morality behind orders and victories, it’s the individual will to say, “hold on” that fuels Sputnik‘s action. When placed around Oleg Karpachev’s heavy, lumbering score, Maxim Zhukov’s chilling cinematography, which at one point gives us the creature’s pov, and the unnerving sound design, Abramenko’s Sputnik is a smartly crafted science-fiction flick that’s as bloody and scary, as it is challenging.
IFC’s Sputnik comes to theaters and virtual screenings 14 August 2020.