Leave it to Russia to drop a cold, tense sci-fi/horror hybrid that’s chilly and austere while also being all kinds of gooey and gross. Such is the way of Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik, a creeping dread creature feature and tale of institutional bureaucratic terror that regularly, and in clever fashion, pulls the rug out from under the viewer. All with unsettling monster effects peppered throughout.
In 1983, there’s an incident in space. When cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) returns to Earth after a mission, his cohort is dead and he can’t remember anything. And since the government can’t very well prop up a potential murderer as a Hero of Russia, he’s kept hidden away in a remote prison until they can determine what happened. Which is where disgraced doctor Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) comes in. Eerie administrator Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) brings her in to discover the truth.
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Tatyana has a talent and penchant for working outside of the rules, bending the norms and regulations to get results. She’s an iconoclast, willing to take big risks in search of big reward. Which is precisely what this task requires. And also what gets her in trouble professionally, both with those above her and those with whom she works.
Just a heads up, it’s impossible to discuss Sputnik without revealing one major detail. It is a bit of a spoiler, so if you want to stop reading and go watch the film, you should. The film is definitely recommended. Honestly, however, it’s not a huge surprise, as the trailers, posters, and even the IMDb description all give away this fact. But you’ve been warned if you’re sensitive to such issues.
The truth of the situation is that when Konstantin Veshnyakov returned, he brought something back with him, a dangerous alien creature. We’ve seen this something-else-came-back conceit a number of times—from space, from death, from wherever. Not to say too much, but the script from Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev puts a unique spin on the creature, how it functions, and what it wants that plays a bit like a more restrained, less bug-nuts-crazy version of Venom.
Like the story, the creature design is familiar while also doing its own thing. The monster is both what audiences expect from a movie extraterrestrial, while still feeling like a truly alien being. It’s lovely and unnerving and threatening all at the same time. In general, Abramenko and company use the special effects sparingly, but unveil them in moments where they have the greatest impact.
Despite the creature, the tête-à-tête between Tatyana Klimova and Konstantin Veshnyakov forms the core of Sputnik. They face off and go back and forth, each gradually peeling back the layers of motivation and certainties of the other. Each harbors their own secrets and the film doles them out, revealing underlying realities that both shock and reframe what’s come before, shifting the way both the characters and viewers look at the events of the movie. It raises questions, like how much people know, and when, what is really the monster and what is the man, and how far are they willing to go? It ups the stakes in gradual, intriguing, unexpected ways that ratchet up the pressure.
For all of the shifts and twists throughout Sputnik, the script earns them all. Or most. One, in particular, is a groaning, cringe-inducing whiff. It also centers on the weakest element of the film, a thread that deals with Konstantin Veshnyakov’s illegitimate son. Not only is it dull and misses what it attempts to do, when the big reveal happens, it’s a major swing-and-a-miss. (I made an epic sour face—in my notes, I drew an emoji-style grimace.)
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That’s a rare misstep in what is otherwise a tight, effective genre outing. Sputnik builds the pressure, subverts expectations, and takes the time to get brutal and vicious. Cold and eerie and era-appropriate, surface affectations—both within the story and the film itself—belie much more going on beneath the surface, and film’s true pleasure lies in digging into and unraveling all of these mysteries. [Grade: B+]