Film Review: ‘Sputnik’ Is A Tense Sci-Fi/Horror Gem
Perhaps the only positive side-effect of the Hollywood machine shutting down in 2020 is the space it created for international productions to shine. Particularly when it comes to genre films. Aussie fright-fest Relic unexpectedly became a summer hit due to its popularity at drive-ins, while UK bone-chiller Amulet made waves on VOD. Joining the mix is Russia’s Sputnik. Egor Abramenko’s feature film debut was snapped up by IFC Midnight after being selected for the Tribecca Film Festival. And it’s easy to see why. This expertly-crafted genre gem finds the sweet spot between sci-fi and horror.
Sputnik begins with a pair of cosmonauts preparing to return to earth after a successful mission in 1983. Their craft is hijacked, however, and the sole survivor — Konstantin (a charismatic Pyotr Fyodorov) — returns to the motherland with an unwanted guest. Which just happens to live inside him during the day and then escape every night… to feed. This all takes place at a secret Soviet laboratory, hidden away in the Kazakh steppe, under the scrutiny of Colonel Semiradov. Out of desperation, he brings in a specialist (Oksana Akinshina in a star-turn) to see if it’s possible to separate man from alien.
It doesn’t take long for the good doctor, Tatyana, to suspect that there’s something sinister going on. Our heroine decides to get to the bottom of it — no matter the cost to her reputation or safety. Tatyana is easy to root for. She is amusingly blunt, whip-smart and deeply humane. Her goal is to free Konstantin from his current hell, which doesn’t align with Colonel Semiradov’s (a menacing Fyodor Bondarchuk) objectives at all. Over the course of tense interrogations and paranoia-infused night wanderings, the doctor discovers the horrifying truth.
While the concept of an alien life-form using a human host is a familiar sci-fi trope, alien and human enjoying a symbiotic relationship is less common. (You could think of Sputnik as a deadly serious riff on Venom). Tone is what sets Sputnik apart. Abramenko approaches the subject matter with the logic of a scientist, making the impossible seem feasible. His direction is razor-sharp and he proves to be a master of atmosphere, steadily building tension within the claustrophobic confines of the compound. The film’s mysterious, dark-green color palette is also aesthetically gorgeous.
From Oleg Karpachev’s chilling score to the exemplary CGI, Sputnik makes the average American sci-fi movie look cheap and lazy. It takes the science seriously, trusts the audience enough to build tension and scares slowly, and invests in character development (Tatyana’s bond with Konstantin is the emotional core of the movie). There’s even commentary on political misinformation. Sputnik runs out of steam somewhat towards the end and frustrates with the occasional, unnecessary flashback, but that does little to diminish Abramenko’s achievement.
How will international audiences react to Sputnik? While the leisurely pacing is distinctly arthouse, there’s no reason why the film can’t crossover. After all, sci-fi seems to be Russia’s niche. From the Night Watch franchise to Hardcore Henry and recent blockbusters like Attraction (and its sequel) and Coma, the country has proven to have a real knack for the genre. While most of those could be classified as popcorn movies, Sputnik owes more of a debt to films like Arrival and Annihilation. Which is high praise indeed.