Egor Abramenko’s debut feature is a deft blend of medical drama, Cold War intrigue, and alien terror
спутник (Sputnik): Russian, “satellite,” or “fellow traveler.”
1983. The USSR’s Orbit-4 has crash-landed in Kazakhstan, leaving one conscious survivor of its 2-person crew: Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), who has no memory of what happened between losing contact with Mission Control and his arrival back on earth. Naturally, the incident is covered up by the State — who subsequently calls in doctor Tatiana (Oksana Akinshina) to evaluate Konstantin’s condition. Upon arrival to the remote base where the Cosmonaut is being quarantined, Tatiana discovers the first of many challenging secrets — an alien parasite has seized hold of Konstantin like an organic spacesuit, exiting for an hour at a time while Konstantin sleeps as if slowly acclimating to its host’s planet. Officials are desperate to split the alien from its Cosmonaut shell before Konstantin can be paraded in public as a Soviet hero — knowing there’s only so much time before the public’s suspicion about his quarantine boils over. But Tatiana’s ingenuity gives way to doubt and rebellion as she discover more disturbing secrets about the alien, its human host, and their military captors.
From its opening moments, Sputnik does away with traditional alien terror in favor of much more insidious terrors of morality. under trial for risking the life of her young patient in order to cure him of seizures, Tatiana posits herself as a strong-spirited doctor determined to take the most logical measures to save her charges, no matter how risky they may be. But Oleg Malovichko and Andrey Zolotarev’s efficient script acts as a steadily-snowballing moral avalanche for both Tatiana and her patient, quickly speeding us through exposition most films would meter out over entire runtimes in the breath of a scene in order to get to Sputnik’s more meatier material. Tatiana maintains her cool edge towards Konstantin, but as she gets to know him as a human being rather than just a host to something very inhuman, she finds herself increasingly at odds with the culture of loyalty and secrecy both her and Konstantin grew up in.
Without ruining the surprises Sputnik has in store, questions quickly arise far beyond the more horrific deep ends of bedside manner. Throughout Sputnik, Abramenko creates an indivisible link between this alien, its host, and what’s expected of them both by the militaristic prison that holds them captive — and Tatiana becomes an unwilling mediator between all three. Sure, Konstantin is a Soviet hero for his valor in space — but how quickly will that dubious honor last if he possibly infects everyone with alien pathogens? At what point do you tell someone that the potential bioweapon inside them is worth more to their superiors than their own life? And, in a culture that prizes obedience and superiority, no matter the cost, at what point do you decide to fight back? I went into Sputnik not knowing much more than its premise of alien-infected astronaut with amnesia — and was caught pleasantly off guard by the gruesome glee and gravity with which the film further explores its ideas.
That’s not to say all of the detours Sputnik takes with its plot are wholly successful. Some third act sympathetic turns feel like big asks considering the preceding carnage, and a recurring subplot in a country orphanage with links to one of our protagonists feels increasingly like a fizzling fuse amidst the fireworks of the finale. Coupled together, they build to a finale that feels exhausting rather than exhilarating, and make what could’ve been a more memorable impact of an ending feel like a slightly misguided missed opportunity.
But as draining as a film that swings its thematic pendulum between Cold War moral rumination and alien body horror can be, Oksana Akinshina, Pyotr Fyodorov, and the rest of the film’s cast navigate such thematic left turns with considerable ease. While Tatiana may let a slight tremor or glance reveal how terrified she may be under understandably terrifying circumstances, Akinshina doesn’t use these as potential betrayals of Tatiana’s calm, collected demeanor. Rather, they’re tells that keep us connected to a character that, despite her passion for her work, has cultivated a diligent, emotionless persona in order to succeed. They’re a must in a field where “colleagues” like rival base doctor Yan (Anton Vasilev) might see them as humbling or disqualifying weaknesses. Konstantin, as we come to learn, has crafted his own persona as well — he’s far from the brave, patriotic Cosmonaut that State media paints him to be, and once saw Space as an escape from his more Earthly troubles. As more comes to light about the alien living inside him, he grows to see his imprisonment (and everything connected to it) as a requisite penance. Sputnik’s dedication to its character work, though uneven it might sometimes be when connecting them to more fantastic plot points, grounds the story in a sense of realism akin to international efforts like last year’s Annihilation or HBO’s Chernobyl.
And, like those aforementioned efforts, Sputnik should be commended for its efforts to create realistic creatures and an equally historically-faithful world for them to wreak havoc in. Production designer Mariya Slavina and costumer Ulyana Polyanskaya create an authentic-feeling recreation of the last days of the USSR, namely within a labyrinthine military base that looks imposing and officious, yet already bears some of the wear and tear that hints at a larger sense of impending ruin. The visual effects from Main Road Post result in an alien creature design that allows the viewer to infer quite a bit from its unexplained origins and attitudes — Sputnik’s beastie undulates and flares much like a territorial cobra, striking to protect its host almost like a surrogate parent from beyond.
Altogether, Abramenko and his crew fashion Sputnik into a well-crafted, realistic sci-fi horror film that indulges in the sparse yet delightfully gruesome moments fans no doubt expect, while also imbuing those moments with considerable dramatic heft.
Sputnik is now available on VOD and in select theaters courtesy of IFC Midnight.