Science fiction horror generally tackles various familiar scenarios. Oftentimes it delves into exploration, culminating in an overarching discussion of the fear of the unknown. This generally takes place while out in space itself, a looming testament to the unknown. A growing sense of vulnerability and fragility looms for the would-be hero, especially if a giant alien lifeform emerges to start hunting them down. But it’s seldom discussed what happens after the individuals we send out to space come back. The psychological impact this has on a person. Through the utilization of its titular fellow traveler, SPUTNIK (спутник) explores this impact while also delivering a slow-paced, fresh-take on the science fiction horror genre.
Written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, Egor Abramenko’s directorial debut SPUTNIK takes place at the height of the Cold War in the Soviet Union. An amnesiac cosmonaut Konstantin Sergeyevich (Pyotr Fyodorov) is found after his titular sputnik vessel crashes in the middle of a USSR territory. We are quickly introduced to the young psychologist Tatiana Yurievna (Oksana Akinshina), who is about to lose her medical license after performing methods on a patient that the bureaucratic medical board deems unsavory despite generating positive results. However, her gustiness attracts the attention of the military. More specifically Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who actively recruits Tatiana to help him crack the code of whatever Konstantin brought back.
At first, it appears to be potential PTSD. However, it’s not long before it is revealed that a creature has latched itself to the cosmonaut, only showing itself late at night. Over time, Tatiana and Semiradov conflict on where their thoughts lie regarding the creature. Semiradov seeks to learn about the creature in order to use it for military purposes. Tatiana wants to learn about the creature in order to help Konstantin. And Konstantin holds the true key to unlocking the secrets that both want to know about the alien passenger. However, with the unveiling of truth lies danger. A danger that will come to impact all involved.
With Americans being no stranger to ’80s-based sci-fi nostalgia, SPUTNIK easily makes itself at home embracing the early ’80s time period in the USSR. This embrace leads to a clear visual aesthetic and setting that is memorable and pleasing to the eye. Visually, we get a glimpse of the two different color schemes that marks the transition between Tatiana’s descent from a white, sterile, seemingly stagnant Moscow to the more dimly lit, dark, and secretive military base in the middle of Siberia. It is in noting these two distinct visual appearances that I started theorizing. When we first meet Tatiana, she is in an open white room before the medical board arrives. Nothing can be hidden in this open white expanse when faced with the bureaucratic watch of Moscow. As we learn later on in the film, some things need to be hidden for the safety of others. And this closed-off, dark visual nature, once we enter the military facility, emphasizes the conflicted nature of that secrecy, especially when those secrets can be utilized for nefarious intentions.
Speaking of secrets, let’s talk about the alien. The alien creature that has taken refuge within Konstantin is deceptively adorable. It’s seemingly fragile appearance lures you into a false sense of security by design. This works to great effect as we only get bits and pieces before we see it in its true might. The creature’s duality, much like the characters we encounter in SPUTNIK, will keep audiences wanting to know more. Once you realize the science behind the creature and its evolutionary design, it all comes together. It provides the audience with a plausible explanation for how a creature like this can exist. While not as in-your-face scary as a xenomorph or the Predator, sometimes the most frightening species are the ones that can lure you in without you suspecting them of harm. Outside of an occasionally awkward framed shot with the creature and its CGI application, Abramenko creates something memorable with this creature.
However, the creature is not the only star of SPUTNIK. The central cast delivers performances that are excellently subtle, yet command the screen. Oksana Akinshina’s Tatiana Yurievna is a survivor, set up to be failed by bureaucratic systems long before the military ever set its eyes on her ballsy tactics. The weight of her past is visible in her body posture. But Akinshina deftly handles the complexities of the character, portraying an innocence and hope that contrasts against the cynicism and darkness that has its claws in the military. Pyotr Fyodorov’s Konstantin Sergeyevich is the centerpiece of the duality concept. A man training his whole life to be a hero is now grappling with a darkness of self that has finally come home to roost. With impressive body horror contortions and a performance that will make you want to give him a hug, Fyodorov equally shines onscreen with Akinshina. Rounding out the cast is Fedor Bondarchuk’s Semiradov, who is honestly more terrifying than the alien. His face portrays nothing of his intentions, marking him easily as someone you can’t trust. And, for that alone, I’d say he makes a convincingly terrifying villain.
What may deter viewers is the slow-paced nature of SPUTNIK. While this viewer had no issues with the pacing, it does take time for the momentum to build before actual affirmative action takes place. This film is not a balls-to-the-wall, heart-racing sci-fi horror. However, the film itself dives deep into the analytical science of the matter. We learn about the duality of the characters involved. The secrets that all carry within as they all try to fulfill their agendas in the facility. The dangers are present, but far more human than any of us could hope for. With the military-industrial complex operating separately from the government in Moscow, there is an unspoken terror. In height of the Cold War, progress is all that is needed to ensure the survival and longevity of the nation. It doesn’t matter who gets sacrificed in the process. Whether it’s a proclaimed national hero like Konstantin or the doctor who is the only one who has made headway with the creature. Everyone is up for the slaughter if they get in the way. This alone is an all too terrifying thought.
SPUTNIK takes its time, but it’s well worth it. What we get is a slow-burn, science fiction horror with enough thematic material to think about long after the credits are done rolling. Abramenko succeeds in pacing out the build-up of paranoia and secrecy that plays out onscreen. Coupled with well thought out writing from Malovichko and Zolotarev and the performances delivered by the cast, the end result is positively impactful. And yes, I would probably try to find a way to get the alien creature. To all involved, I will leave you with this quick note of thanks. Спасибо за этот фильм.
SPUTNIK will open in select theatres, digital platforms, and cable VOD on August 14, 2020.