James Jay Edwards reviews Sputnik, a Russian sci-fi horror film directed by Egor Abramenko and starring Oksana Akinshina. (IFC Films)
It’s always said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case, then a lot of movies should be flattered by Sputnik. And not just because Sputnik recycles previously explored ideas, but because it does so extremely well. In some cases, better than the movies that it’s aping.
Set in 1983, Sputnik is about a Russian cosmonaut named Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) who is the only member of his crew to survive a mission. But he has no memory of anything that happened after about one minute until re-entry. He is kept quarantined at a secret Russian hospital/prison, and the officer in charge, Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk), sends for a psychologist named Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to help unravel the mystery of his ordeal. Tatyana discovers something the colonel has known all along—that Konstantin has brought back a lifeform with him from space that lives within his body. The question is, is the organism a parasite or a symbiote?
(Sputnik, theatrical release poster, IFC Films)
Clearly, director Egor Abramenko wears his influences on his sleeve with Sputnik. The movie is essentially Arrival meets Alien as the sequel to Life that audiences never got, with a healthy dose of The Shape of Water thrown in for good measure. But it’s much more than just a mashup of a bunch of other science fiction flicks. Despite its familiarity, Sputnik is a fresh and unique take on the age-old alien visitor theme.
Sputnik was spawned from a 2017 short film by Abramenko called The Passenger. Along with screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, Abramenko fleshed out his one-man study of loneliness and isolation into a full-fledged monster movie. Although it is, at its base, a simple creature feature, Sputnik does not really have the feel of a horror movie. Jump scares and gross-outs are deftly substituted with oozing tension and a genuine mood of creepiness, and while it’s not traditionally scary, it still leans heavily into its monster movie-ness, even if it does miss a great opportunity by using CGI to bring its creature to life instead of utilizing creative practical puppet and animatronic effects.
(Sputnik, IFC Films)
The high-tech effects are to be expected in a modern movie though, even for one with a visual aesthetic that matches its eighties era. Sputnik isn’t drenched in nostalgia, with “Jesse’s Girl” playing on every radio and The Breakfast Club flickering on every TV screen. It’s set in Soviet Russia, remember, so it oozes Cold War tension. There is an atmosphere of collapse in the movie that goes far beyond the microcosm of the compound, one that can be seen in each and every character, from the whatever-it-takes psychologist to the stoic anti-hero colonel. The country is on the verge of Beatles albums and blue jeans, and this mishap with the space program only adds to the uncertain air of everyone’s future.
That’s another aspect of Sputnik that separates it from other sci-fi/horror movies. Its characters are actually human, and the audience empathizes with them. Even the hard-as-nails Colonel Semiradov has his sympathetic moments. There are no cannon fodder characters in Sputnik (well, at least none that get any real screen time), so the audience is heavily invested in them. It also helps that the antagonist/protagonist roles are always evolving, so the good guys and bad guys are never crystal clear. Everyone is real, warts and all.
(Sputnik, IFC Films)
There’s very little that’s new in Sputnik, but the way that Egor Abramenko puts it all together breathes new life into the old (and not-so-old) tropes. Sputnik is one of the best movies of the year, and it’s not just because all of the other releases have been pushed into next year. Sputnik is really that good.