A film review by Craig J. Koban August 28, 2020

SPUTNIK jjjj

2020, Not Rated, 113 mins.

Oksana Akinshina as Tatyana Klimova  /  Pyotr Fyodorov as Konstantin Veshnyakov  /  Fedor Bondarchuk as Semiradov

Directed by Egor Abramenko  /  Written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrey Zolotarev
 

 

Yes, SPUTNIK takes its title from the world famous satellite of the of the same name launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, but it also translates (in English) as "companion," the latter of which makes more sense on a thematic level here.  This Russian made sci-fi horror thriller is a fairly ingenious hybrid: think of it as the love child of the combined work of Ridley Scott, Denis Villeneuve, and John Carpenter.  It's also an unrelenting creepfest that deserves some very worthy comparisons to this year's THE INVISIBLE MAN for the way it takes a very familiar genre premise and imbues it with considerable flair, innovation, and an undulating sense of chilling atmosphere throughout.  We've seen countless films like this before (Scott's original ALIEN comes immediately to mind), but the manner that SPUTNIK goes completely against the grain of audience expectations is its true masterstroke. 

The film opens in 1983 during the zenith of the Cold War and introduces us to cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), who has just crashed his ship in a remote and unspecified part of the Soviet Union during a botched re-entry.  His partner on the mission was not so lucky and appears to have been killed not so much by the dreadful impact of the craft hitting the earth, but by...something else.  Military men swoop in and nab the injured and confused Konstantin and he's quickly shuttled to a secret scientific lab completely off the grid, headed up by Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk).  The bewildered space man is put through a battery of questions and medical tests, and it clearly appears that, yes, he and his dead comrade have definitely brought back something alien with them.  Even worse is the fact that this extra-terrestrial organism - in pure ALIEN-esque fashion - is actually living inside of poor Konstantin.   

With Semiradov getting desperate for answers, he decides to turn to a disgraced, but brilliant scientist, Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina), who has recently hit career rock bottom, but could possibly redeem herself by working with her government to find a way to psychologically study Konstantin and hopefully find a safe and secure manner of separating him from the beast residing within him.  The opening half of SPUTNIK just described is its finest, displaying great patience in showing us Konstantin's day-to-day struggles in the facility while juxtaposing that with Tatyana's unorthodox methods of trying to emotionally reach this man and get that alien monstrosity out of him.  Even by the time we do in fact get a very intimate look at the expelled creature (it ventures out of Konstantin's mouth...yuck), it's clear that director Egor Abramenko isn't trying to make yet another paint-by-number alien infestation/invasion thriller.  SPUTNIK does have its share of grisly horror, blood curdling violence, and eye popping visual effects, to be sure, but it's a much more low key and insular affair that places a greater emphasis on character dynamics and studying the alien itself, which compellingly comes in and out of Konstantin and seems especially driven to fear (granted, what movie alien isn't?). 

 

 

It's so ultra rare these days to have any science fiction offering that's less about visceral mayhem and spectacle and instead is more idea driven and focused on the personalities contained within, and that's precisely where SPUTNIK truly shines.  The most fascinating area of interest in the film resides squarely with the relationship trio between the determined Tatyana, her domineering and control freak of a colonel, and the victim caught between them in Konstantin, who's clearly suffering the worst ordeal of them all.  Slowly, but surely, we learn details about these characters' lives, like how Konstantin is a widow and even sent his son to live in an orphanage so that he wouldn't impede on his quest for space travel career.  There's almost a perverse level of poetic justice with his man's utter failures as a father, who's now faced with harboring a beast inside him and against his will that can have his way with him whenever it feels like it.  Then there's Tatyana who's facing multiple dilemmas: She's a woman in a male dominated field and one that exists within a restrictive bubble of political control that frowns against her progressive minded theories and practices.  Her ties with the colonel are tricky, to say the least.  He initially seems willing to work with her and gives her free reign, but then he later shows his darker side and true intentions, which makes him a threat almost more ghastly that the alien entity itself. 

The performances here are so thanklessly and surprisingly good and compliment the atypically sensitive and introspective writing.  Tatyana and Konstantin in particular are not perfect souls, to be fair, and have ample skeletons in their respective closets, but the actors here work wonders and giving them sizeable emotional depth (in many ways, they're both prisoners held within the tight reigns of Semiradov's bureaucratic grasp).  The real standout for me here is clearly Akinshina, who has dabbled in a few American films in the past, but has mostly worked in her native Russia for most of her recent career.  Comparisons with Tatyana to, say, Ellen Ripley are unavoidable, seeing as both are remarkably strong willed and independent minded women protagonists that populate respective sci-fi films that place them in nightmarishly dangerous predicaments with deadly beings not of this planet.  Tatyana also, like Ripley, doesn't take shit from any authority figure and puts her own life on the line to subvert their demands of her.  The key difference here, though, is that Tatyana is a low level pawn in a misogynistic and rigidly controlled Soviet culture of the past that went to great lengths to subvert women that could think and fend for themselves.  That makes her an ever more intoxicating heroine in the sense that she's fighting multiple battles all at once, and Akinshina gives this character a world weary, melancholic soul and battle hardened toughness that's a tough performance dichotomy to pull off effectively; she's definitely more than just a Ripley clone on autopilot. 

SPUTNIK is also no technical slouch either, and the dark and ominous cinematography and the eerily claustrophobic production design of the military base all convey a small world that's closing in on these characters and will take no prisoners (the retro look of the film as well never becomes distractingly garish especially when one considers the early parts of the decade in question).  The opening sequence set in space and featuring that crash landing of the doomed space craft easily rivals most American films (that cost vastly more) on a level of proficiently convincing effects.  And, let's not forget, SPUTNIK is also a creature feature through and through, and great pains have been obviously taken here to make a being of unknown origins that doesn't look like it's ripping off design elements from the H.R. Giger playbook.  It's a slimy, slithering, hissing, and indescribably unsettling being that's pure terror fuel, but one that doesn't look woefully derivative.  And when the alien on human violence inevitably comes it's unleashed with shocking levels of frightening and nauseating immediacy that will easily inspire your gag reflex. 

Having said that, SPUTNIK isn't, as mentioned, just about ghastly, gross out action and nauseating visuals.  Genre fans will appreciate those elements contained within, to be sure, but as for myself I found it so much more thoughtfully scripted than most ALIEN imitators that I've seen, and its early 80s, Soviet infused locales give it a look and feel all to its own.  And as an alien invasion story, SPUTNIK hones in more on the sinister, behind the scenes machinations of Tatyana's tireless scientific quest than it does on the usual, overused contrivances of the genre.  I think that there's a certain case to be made about how some of the conventional sources of influences on this film seem to stick out more than others, like body horror, political paranoia, and lots of frightened soldiers and scientists fleeing for their lives from monsters they hopelessly can't ever comprehend or understand (it's a staple in sci-fi horror films like this since the genre began that people in high ranking positions make the categorical blunder of thinking they can manipulate a lethally deadly E.T. against its wishes for their own militaristic pursuit of knowledge).  Those are petty nitpicks, because SPUTNIK contains a potently crafty and unendingly confident vision that uses a much more refreshingly and economical less-is-more approach to well worn material.  It's simply one of 2020's finest diamond in the rough surprises, and one that takes you on a systematically unsettling journey where determining where the plot is headed becomes more increasingly difficult from scene to scene.  Hollywood could learn a lot from SPUTNIK. 

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