Alien parasites wreak havoc on Mother Russia in this pulpy, viscerally effective creepfest.
The uncommonly patient Russian creature feature Sputnik begins with a familiar but fertile premise: An alien has hitched a ride back to Earth on an astronaut mission. A long history of genre films has played out this exact scenario. But the first wrinkle comes as the camera cuts from the crash landing to a bureaucratic board hearing of an entirely unrelated neurosurgeon, Tatiana (Oksana Akinshina). The setting is Cold War-era Soviet Union (1983), and that placement couldn’t be more relevant.
That reality figures into every decision in Egor Abramenko’s film. But an unspoken future historical shift lends the film a unique ideological texture – glasnost. A word popularized by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 (coincidentally the same year as the Chernobyl Disaster) to signal an increase in government transparency, the characters of Sputnik are alternately hobbled and empowered by the covert, pre-glasnost procedures of the Soviet Union.
Results – in this case – refer to quarantined hero astronaut, Konstantin (Pyotor Fyodorov). He’s got a bad habit of nightly expulsions of an alien creature, despite his daily insistence that he’s never felt better. The deceptively breezy Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) brings in Tatiana to make her own assessment. Of course, Semiradov and his scientific lackey, Yan Rigel (Anton Vasilev), aren’t immediately forthcoming about the whole space invader part. Tatiana initially diagnoses him with PTSD. But a late-night observation shows that he’s dealing with more than a bit of selective amnesia.
Despite that pulpy framework, the rest of the film is satisfyingly difficult to describe. It’s intermittently gruesome but also languid in movement and character, even when Oleg Karpachev’s absurdly bombastic score insists on the urgency of the moment. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Abramenko’s direction feels natural in the most rhetorically charged moments. Part of that is the densely procedural and morally questioning script from Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev. Unfortunately, it dissipates into a slickly generic third act. But that’s a jarring change after such an assured twist on such familiar ideas.
From the early moments where Semiradov describes Konstantin’s location as “something of a research institute”, Tatiana’s paranoia pervades every moment of the film. She lives in a climate where she was just on trial for negligence for saving a patient with bold methods. She lives with a keen awareness of how the state handles sticky situations. This truth is confirmed in a dryly funny way when the place swarming with soldiers and its own inmate population is revealed as the blandly named “All-Union Scientific Research Institute.”
What to do about Konstantin and his 30 CM friend takes up much of the film. But there’s crucially as much time spent on the perceptions related to this imposing compound. It’s not remotely surprising when everything isn’t above board, but it still effectively conjures a smothering atmosphere. And combined with Tatiana’s complete freedom in relation to Konstantin – her impulsive actions rankle the bootlicking Yan on more than one occasion – these juxtapositions complicate how Tatiana inures herself both to the expected secrecy of the situation and showcases her levelheaded professionalism in the face of something so unfamiliar.
This Soviet mentality doesn’t just apply to Semiradov, Tatiana, and Yan. Konstantin is resolute in his beliefs about his health and the preternatural quality of the Russian cosmonaut. And Fyodorov’s accompanying body language is spiked with impatience and visibly mounting anxiety, even as he’s asked mundane questions about his eating patterns and his memories about landing. Those conversations stand in contrast to the actions outside Konstantin’s purview like Tatiana monitoring his fluctuating hormone levels and re-enacting Arrival with his spindly extraterrestrial passenger while he’s out cold.
Despite that pulpy framework, the rest of the film is satisfyingly difficult to describe.
Malovichko and Zolotarev’s script doesn’t stray too far from previous fiction about the aliens’ nature. But they embellish some of the more fluid details. In particular, the intertwined relationship between the host and the visitor is a bit different than the usual cat and mouse or breeding vessel dynamic. There’s still plenty of room for gooey Cronenbergian shapeshifting, but there’s rarely a chance for the catharsis of death. Instead, Konstantin is forced to co-exist with this hitchhiker. It’s not unlike an Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Species situation; Konstantin is stubborn but doesn’t seem corrupted in any way. The script gracefully skips over some of the more tedious exposition required in setting up the more engaging parts of the narrative.
The film is strong in depicting the connections between tactile, clinical observations, and biological/psychological changes. But it’s much clumsier when needing to move the actual film forward. Between an awkward subplot about a child and an unraveling series of secrets, it struggles to find a way to interweave all of these ideas and submits to a more mechanical, violent conclusion. In that way, it’s not unlike Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.
It’s great fun to see soldiers get their heads ripped off like a grape from a stem. But all the preceding weighty dialogue about sacrifices for the greater good feel like the long way to pat ideas about stifling state control and weaponizing nature. But at least for a while, Sputnik knows the only way to move forward is to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances.
Sputnik is currently available in select theaters, as well as digital and VOD platforms.
- “Hunted” speaks out of both sides of its mouth - January 11, 2021
- The Top 25 Films of 2020 - December 15, 2020
- “Gunda” is a wordless symphony of the lives of livestock - December 11, 2020