Sputnik

Kid me had a weird fascination with Sputnik. The first artificial satellite, launched in 1957, resembled a cyber daddy long-legs. Between its looks, weird name (“Spoot-nick!” was a reliable laugh generator for me and my brothers), and connection to space, the object simply tickled my childish fancy.

So when I heard the title of the new Russian sci-fi film, Sputnik, I went “wha?” When I found out it was also a horror movie about a psychiatrist trying to remove a parasitic alien from its Cosmonaut host who unwittingly picked it up (in a creepy, slow burn opening) returning from a mission in 1983, I added an extra “wha” to my initial exclamation. My curiosity was stoked; I requested a screener.

I didn’t know what to expect. The trailer made it look like a talky, gooey, Russian The Thing meets Alien. What I got was a talky, gooey Russian The Thing meets…E.T.?!

Well, not really. Take that sentence literally and I’d be completely misrepresenting the movie. It’s not that talky, but it’s not a stalking alien killfest either. Rather, Sputnik is a moody, skillfully shot amalgamation of sci-fi tropes that finds enough of its own identity to make it memorable.  

And the alien at the center of Sputnik, and inside of Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), isn’t some benign, Reese’s Pieces devouring, “phone home”-er either. It’s a vicious little dude for sure and is responsible for a fair share of gory misdeeds. But there’s something more decidedly animal about it than evil. And when it sadly and protectively embraced a Matryoshka doll (get it? They nest within each other?), I almost thought it was…kinda cute?

Which is weird ‘cause when it first showed up, splooshing out of the esophagus of its paralyzed host, it made me sick, especially once it stretched out to reveal its full flukey glory, complete with translucent skin the color of boiled meat and multiple beady black eyes of various littleness. The effects used to bring it to life are marvelous. I immediately thought I felt something touching my feet in the dark when I saw it.       

The isolated setting, on a base in Soviet occupied Kazakhstan, is rife for alien intrigue, especially as its communist décor, all concrete and cheap parquet floor, is captured eerily with steely gray cinematography, highlighted with warm amber accents. Between that and the cool looking monster the movie already had me at a design level, but what anchors all of this is the main character, an emotionally distant psychiatrist with a confrontational nature played wonderfully by Oksana Akinshina.

How do I describe Tatyana Klimova? Fascinating would be a good start. With her angular face, porcelain skin, and smooth platinum hair, she cuts a striking figure. With the first cut to her character, coolly withstanding an inquiry into her controversial, but effective, method for treating a psychiatric patient, she grabs your attention. Cool, secure, exuding IDGAF, she’s somebody I wanted to follow into this adventure. She’s somebody who could take on Soviet bureaucracy and a deadly space symbiote at the same time.

But the script, by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, allows dimensionality for this cool cucumber. Underneath that icy exterior is an imperfect being who doesn’t always get it right but is driven by empathy and a conscience. You root for her, and her underlying humanity sticks with you more than some of the gore on display. Though, to be honest, the only real moment where director Egor Abramenko (making his feature film debut) seems to truly relish the violence is a moment at the end when someone who deserves it…well…gets it; in full view of the camera. The rest is tastefully done, showing enough for “ewwww” and then moving on.           

The story is unpacked at a good pace, though maybe, maybe the lead up to the third act could have been just a little tighter and we could have gotten just a bit more alien action.  Overall, though, the way the story unfolds makes sense, or at least it made sense while watching it. No movie’s plot is a 100% foolproof, but this one earned its reveals and doled them out at the right moments, even catching me off guard with a nice misdirect that added to the story rather than being clever for cleverness’ sake.

Sputnik is well made genre entertainment, even if those looking for an all-out monsterpalooza might be disappointed. Still, it’s a confident and imaginative film that announces promising talents, behind and in front of the camera, that feed well off each other.

Note: Sputnik is Russian for “companion” or “spouse.”

-Pavel Klein


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