Who doesn’t love a good slice of the old sci-fi horror? From Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking 1979 inaugural entry to the Alien franchise, The Shining-in-space romp (and Paul W.S. Anderson’s only truly good film) Event Horizon or Jack Sholder’s veritably thrilling and quirky mini-masterpiece The Hidden, the wedding of high-concept scientific narratives with the aesthetics of fear is arguably more terrifying than horror rooted in the supernatural.
I say this because the probability of life beyond our planet and cutting-edge technologies taking a very dark turn is a little more robust than the existence of vampires, ghosts, witches or Jason Vorhees (I am also an empiricist, so I’m not going to say that there are no unstoppable gigantic hockey-masked killer monsters until scrutiny declares it so). The anxiety is fortified by conjured thoughts of what the scientific community may be on the cusp of discovering, and when experts voice concerns about potential ‘Singularities’ and say that Earth being the only inhabited planet is highly unlikely, what’s unfolding on the screen in front of you can start to seem like more of an existential threat in the temporal distance rather than an entertaining frightener.
Sputnik, the directorial debut of Egor Abramenko, showcases an intriguing bait-and-switch with the typical formula of science-fiction horror, as what initially appears to be a cat-and-mouse/race-against-time piece predicated on an extraterrestrial antagonist is actually a broader examination of official hypocrisy & cowardice, betrayal of patriotic ideals, honour and sacrifice.
It is 1983, and we are in the Soviet Union. Dr Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is a neuropsychiatrist facing imminent dismissal in light of her unorthodox yet effective methods of treating patients. Impressed by her defiant pride and willingness to take risks, Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk), the overseer of a clandestine local military facility, approaches her with an unusual request. Insisting that she is the only one capable of providing any useful insight, he stresses the top-secret nature of the assignment and promises her that he will personally ensure she remains in employment.
Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is a cosmonaut and the sole survivor of a two-man orbital research mission that went disastrously wrong (as we see in an unsettling opening sequence), and he has been quarantined in Semiradov’s facility for observation owing to some troublingly unusual behaviour upon his return to Earth. To her abject horror, Tatyana discovers that Konstantin was infected by an alien parasite whilst in space and that Semiradov has brought her in to deduce a way of separating the creature from him, a burgeoning symbiosis causing an understandably manic level of concern. The parasite, a revolting, slimy being that looks like some sort of undiscovered aquatic monstrosity, lives in Konstantin’s oesophagus and derives nutrition from whatever he eats, only leaving its host’s body during the night while he sleeps.
The longer Tatyana studies Konstantin and converses with him, the more difficult it becomes for her to remain an objective observer. Finding herself caring for the troubled spaceman (thankfully in a humanistic manner as opposed to a trite romantic sentiment), she is enraged and terrified upon unearthing a few diabolical secrets about the facility, namely that Semiradov has kept her in the dark about particular habits of the parasite and has already been utilising it for deeply nefarious purposes, ultimately hoping to weaponise the creature. Realising they are both expendable pawns, Tatyana is burdened with the impossibly stressful task of destroying the symbiosis between the alien and the cosmonaut, getting herself and said cosmonaut the hell out of there in one piece and bringing their military masters to justice for their utterly wicked conspiracies.
With Maxim Zhukov’s clinical cinematography that feels ‘Soviet’ in its essence, Sputnik proves an uncomfortably immersive film, a quality compounded by the strong performances of the focal players. Akinshina gives the audience a viable heroine in the form of Tatyana, the strong-willed and unshakeably moral woman of science whose sharp cognition and lack of fear understandably draw a comparison with one Ellen Ripley. Akinshina and Fyodorov have an intriguing and deeply moving chemistry, the latter’s portrayal of Konstantin frameworked in a subtle complexity of thoughts and emotions that create a character we are simultaneously fearful of and for. Both are revealed to be wounded individuals who possess unwavering integrity, bolstering the audience’s emotional investment in their ultimate survival and solving of Konstantin’s extraterrestrial quandary.
I can’t help but express some concerns about the film’s poster art and general marketing, as it has been advertised as a high-octane horror of a ‘stop the evil alien’ variety, but the creature itself is merely a parasitic lifeform obeying its own aggressive nature as opposed to being the ‘Big Bad’ of the work. Don’t get me wrong, the creature design is very effective and the film is replete with excruciatingly intimidating moments thanks to the space beast, but it is merely another pawn in the game of the movie’s true villains, the Russian military. Bondarchuk cuts a terrifyingly ruthless and single-minded figure as the stoic Semiradov, a man who dispels any illusions that he wouldn’t do whatever it takes to secure the U.S.S.R’s place as the world’s most dangerous military power, even if it calls for sacrificing his nation’s heroes.
Oleg Karpachev’s score is foundational to Sputnik‘s emotive power, a comprehensively strong composition possessing a wonderful throwback quality that is particularly evocative of 1980s horror and sci-fi. The soundtrack and visuals, supplemented by the compelling performances of the leads, are sufficient to help the viewer overlook the film’s shortcomings, particularly a series of utterly redundant flashbacks and a denouement that doesn’t feel believable.
Sputnik is worth the watch for its clever subversion of audience expectations and thoughtful commentary on governmental megalomania. Well-crafted suspense and several frightening sequences imbue it with solid momentum, and it is certainly a more intelligent film than the advertising might lead you to believe. The payoff feels tacked on and the pacing is soporific in places, but it nevertheless displays great promise for Abramenko as a director and is an engaging experience despite its flaws. If you like your horror films with a bit of brains to them, give this one a gander.