At first glance, the directorial debut of Egor Abramenko Sputnik superficially resembles the 1979 Ridley Scott classic Extraterrestrial. The premise? A cosmonaut (Pyotr Fyodorov) survives a heart-wrenching incident in space and a frightening crash, taking with him a dangerous alien parasite, a deadly and unprecedented creature that lives in him. Young doctor Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is responsible for an in-depth examination of the Soviet hero. The entity appears to have a parasitic attachment to its host. What is the nature of this attachment, and can they be separated?
It’s this premise that sets the film on an entirely different path from the original guest comparison. The entity in question sports both a unique and interesting creature design, but is one of the few horror entities that coexists with its host in a relatively non-destructive way. The film is a horror film, there are considerable moments of gore and menace, but the engine of the plot is a scientific mystery to analyze the incomprehensible. Sputnik is a creature characteristic more concerned with understanding a creature from a scientific perspective than a militarist, and the crux of the film is not a protagonist trying to destroy a creature at all costs, but above all to understand it versus the militarist impulse to destroy or, worse, to use it in destruction.
The performances in the lead are solid overall. Akinshina’s turn as a scientist is complex – aloof, curious and professional, but courageous and compassionate – and she does admirably. The film’s main antagonist, Fyodor Bondarchuk’s Colonel Semiradov, isn’t exactly the brash and tough military man in so many films – distant and serious, of course, but it’s interesting to watch him navigate the confines of the shadow, off-grid science. And the cosmonaut in question at the beginning has relatively little to do, but as events unfold, he navigates well in the experience of a man going through an otherworldly process.
The production design and cinematography create a compelling image of an alien threat inside a covert, off-grid experimental facility. The design of the building presents, in Soviet military fashion, a significant range of blocky architecture, soft colors and purely functional spaces, but the camera works and blocks the ebb and flow of the interior to the exterior, and in and around the installation, without feeling monotonous or muted. Overall, it’s a well-made film whose technical components complement the story and help draw the viewer in.
Globally Sputnik is a great creature feature with a strong and effective yet engaging story, well-executed body horror moments, solid performance, and a unique creature design. More important again, Sputnik sports a sufficiently new twist on an otherwise common sci-fi horror premise to feel like it’s asking its own questions and going its own way. It’s a film that subtly provokes thought without hitting the audience with them; if you are looking for a simple monster horror you can find it, but the parts are here to dig deeper. Conclusion: it works, it’s fun, and it’s worth it.
Sputnik debuts on 08/14 on VOD in the US