I bet I can tell what’s going through your mind as you take in the poster for the upcoming sci-fi thriller “Sputnik,” with all its space-aesthetic-meets-ominous-silhouetted-alien glory:
This looks familiar.
Don’t we already know exactly what we’re getting with this?
What’s to stop me from just rewatching “Life” or “Underwater” or “Cloverfield” or “Alien,” the mother of all space-stalker tales?
I get it. I really do get it! They’re all valid impressions. Which makes me happy to report that “Sputnik,” a tantalizing feature debut from Russian filmmaker Egor Abramenko, is at the very least more ambitious than its minimalist one-sheet would suggest. It would be futile to predict the pivots “Sputnik” takes over nearly two hours, and even if it doesn’t fully balance the thematic weight it sets on the scales for itself, there’s certainly more than enough here to prevent calling it yet another mere “Alien” clone.
Opening where most space-faring spookfests end – on descent back to terra firma – two Soviet cosmonauts in a cramped tin can are singing songs and ruminating on where they’ll go upon their return when (right on cue) there’s a bang from outside. And, wait…was that a tentacle that just flashed by the window? Perhaps these adventurers won’t make it home after all.
Well, one of them won’t anyway. Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is the expedition’s lone survivor, which isn’t the story the triumph-hungry Soviet people are fed. But it’s the truth that is relayed to psychiatrist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) by a burly military commander requesting her expertise: Konstantin has apparently experienced some mental traumas and amnesia (understandable) and can’t remember what’s happened since we last saw him beyond the atmosphere.
The real reason he’s confined to a military base and being escorted around by guards, though: A ghastly creature returned with him, one that appears to use Konstantin’s body as a flesh-and-blood Airbnb during the day and re-emerges every night, seemingly without Konstantin’s awareness. Tatyana’s job is figuring out a way to “separate host from parasite,” and you can bet “Sputnik” has the gross-out moments and freakish close encounters to make good on that job description.
But this is a creature feature with a melodramatic edge, or at least one that doesn’t shy away from baring the corrupt soul of its naively draconian antagonists (you’ll go from fearing this picture’s slimy, grimy Xenomorph’s cousin to rooting it on). And in between requisite moments of visceral tension and geysers of blood, “Sputnik” is making a concerted, albeit slightly shoddy effort to prioritize character over crass frights. The headstrong Tatyana and tragic Konstantin serve deeper purpose than being mere prey here—and the movie bets on itself that their evolving relationship will make us go from a bloodthirsty audience to a sympathetic one.
It doesn’t totally pay off. Characters’ decisions in what is a bit of a tedious third act rely largely on a central chemistry that doesn’t fully manifest, and one could make the case for the simpler but more nihilistic tone of “Life” over the narrative jigsaw of “Sputnik.” The venture is nonetheless an intriguing one.
The movie, written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, also takes its taloned finger and swirls it through recent Russian history, occasionally jabbing at the nationalistic contradiction of hero worship and information suppression. “I’m a hero of the Soviet Union,” Konstantin says (or otherwise heavily implies) on multiple occasions, but he’s even less sure of himself each time. What does the life of one foot soldier actually represent to the powers that be? “Sputnik” doesn’t answer the question as boldly as it probably could, but perhaps Abramenko will sharpen his blade in future works.
Of course, you don’t have to concern yourself with historical allegory and institutional indictment to get a kick or two out of “Sputnik.” The graceful direction and sleek cinematography (via Maxim Zhukov) lend themselves deliciously well to the many sequences here that are inspired by old-school Cold War thrillers—the constant twists and turns, the allegiances made and allegiances broken, the shady motivations and psychological chess matches. And Tatyana makes for a worthy heroine.
At the same time, our ghoul that hitchhikes back to Earth – a nightmarish combination of toothy eel and pale demon – follows a long lineage of movie monsters representative of something more than just an elusive threat to neutralize. It says a lot about the military complex’s motivations in “Sputnik” that they have plenty of opportunities to do just that (you can practically hear the Nostromo crew begging to take an incinerator to it).
Our slippery E.T. may very well be the star of the show in “Sputnik.” But here the most damning horrors already call Earth home, and this throwback genre movie’s most inventive element reveals itself in the relationship between alien and human host. If you can get past some scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo, there’s appetizing complexity to Abramenko’s examinations of masculinity and rage to be uncovered. If no one can hear you scream in space, then perhaps, in paranoid militaristic nations, no one can see the grenade pin being pulled behind Big Brother’s back.
"Sputnik" is not rated. It's available to rent Friday on various digital platforms.
Starring: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov
Directed by Egor Abramenko
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